08/07/2013 04:12 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2013

Huma's Support for Weiner: What's Saudi Arabia Got to Do With It?


What puzzles me most about Maureen Dowd's piece on Anthony Weiner's fresh scandal is this: Why, in an article that is largely about how Weiner's sext-addiction may damage his and his wife's standing with the Clintons, does Dowd feel the need to mention Huma Abedin's upbringing in Saudi Arabia?

On initial review, Dowd's edict just reads like a lazy opener.

When you puzzle over why the elegant Huma Abedin is propping up the eel-like Anthony Weiner, you must remember one thing: Huma was raised in Saudi Arabia, where women are treated worse by men than anywhere else on the planet.

It is a sentence written without intent, saucy enough to hook a reader but not substantial enough to add any weight to Dowd's piece.

Read the paragraph again, though, and you'll realize it points to a prejudice more damaging than you'd imagine.

Dowd isn't alone in her belief that a woman raised in the Middle East is conditioned to be subservient to men and to authority in general. This is such a widely held view that I'm frequently asked whether I, a woman raised in Pakistan, was 'allowed' to drive, to work outside my home, to meet men and to socialize with whom I pleased. Most people who ask me these questions have not traveled to the Middle East or South Asia. They assume that my life in Pakistan, like the lives of most women who live in the region, was a quietly desperate thing, devoid of physical and intellectual freedom.

When I respond to my curious colleagues or friends, the first thing I say to them is: you're not entirely wrong.

Plain facts will prove that women are in fact grossly underrepresented in government, in the media and in politics in most of the Middle East. This on its own needn't be a shocking detail; the same is true in many countries beyond the Middle East too. But a country like Saudi Arabia comes down especially hard on women, mostly because of the state's adherence to a strict interpretation of Islam. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, are forbidden from exiting the country without a male 'guardian', and cannot, for the most part, work side by side with men.

In a country like Pakistan women's roles are moderated by cultural norms and expectations rather than the law, but the effect is similar. Women are expected to dress conservatively, refrain from mingling with men excessively and generally keep their heads down.

If, then, a woman raised in Saudi Arabia or another culturally or religiously conservative country manages to achieve a level of professional success that approximates Huma Abedin's accomplishments, one must acknowledge she's done so through extraordinary effort. She is an outlier; she has beaten the odds, defied numerous naysayers and now stands as a counter to narratives of 'traditional' female roles she's been exposed to while growing up.

She shouldn't have to have the fact of her upbringing used as ammunition to dismiss her every time she makes a personal decision that is unpopular.

To do so diminishes whatever she has achieved so far. To do so undermines the professional triumphs she's collected based on the strength of a personality she acquired while she potentially was, as Dowd puts it, 'treated worse by men than anywhere else on the planet.'

A woman in that position should be respected for coming so far -- not dragged down by insubstantial accusations of masochism.

I would have expected Dowd to steer clear of making these claims, especially when she talks about how Hillary Clinton stood by Bill after the Lewinsky scandal blew up in their faces. Just mentioning Hillary and Huma's story in the same breath dispels the reductive argument that a conservative upbringing is what motivates Abedin to stand by her politico husband as he generates scandal after scandal. Both Hillary and Huma are clearly savvy, powerful and ambitious. Both chose to remain married despite their husband's indiscretions. Only one of them was raised in the Middle East. It seems obvious that they probably had better reasons for sticking by their husbands than a misplaced sense of wifely duty.

Knowing that, Dowd's casual remark speaks volumes about the ease with which we stereotype each other in an effort to reach conclusions that should be a product of informed debate yet are most often determined by the biases of our personal experiences.

Her jab stings even more than a comment in a similar vein made by Rush Limbaugh, because you'd expect Dowd, as a woman, to present a more nuanced take on Abedin's actions so far.

Sadly, just as some Saudi women are complicit in preserving their own inequality, in making this comment Dowd undermines the attempts of any woman trying to achieve success in a world that hasn't always supported her. It doesn't matter what you do or who you ultimately become, Dowd's non sequitur tells us.

I'll only ever judge you for where you came from.