Backlash to Saudi rapper Asayal Slay exposes kingdom's superficial gender reform

Backlash to Saudi rapper Asayal Slay exposes kingdom's superficial gender reform
Comment: As long as men preside over decisions on gender reform, women's rights in Saudi Arabia will never go beyond a PR move, writes Alainna Liloia.
6 min read
26 Feb, 2020
Female activists continue to be jailed despite Saudi gender reforms [YouTube]
Is Saudi Arabia advancing or repressing women's rights? Well, it's complicated.

Saudi women made international headlines once again when Saudi officials called for the arrest of the Saudi female rapper Asayel Slay for releasing a music video about the beauty and strength of girls from Mecca. This government move sorely contradicts its recent efforts to create a more progressive image for the ultraconservative kingdom.

But this isn't the first time something like this has happened, and it is unlikely to be the last. While the Saudi state uses gender reform to paint a progressive picture of the kingdom as a patron of women's advancement, it consistently silences the voices of Saudi women themselves and excludes women from defining the terms of their own advancement. 

Gender reform and repression in Saudi Arabia 

Saudi Arabia has made major strides in women's rights in recent years, including lifting the ban on women drivers and reforming the guardianship system so that women can obtain passports, register births and deaths, and travel without a male relative's permission. Spearheaded by the crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, these reforms aim to shed the kingdom's ultraconservative image and silence criticisms about its human rights record. 

Yet, many of the Saudi women activists who fought for these reforms have been arrested and remain in jail to this day. And women like Asayel Slay who dare to push social boundaries, continue to face political repression as well as social and religious backlash for their public voices. 

Asayel's Arabic music video was filmed in the city of Mecca, considered Islam's holiest city by Muslims all over the world. The video, which featured her rapping and girls dancing, expresses her pride in being a girl from the holy city, and elevates the power and beauty of Meccan girls. 

The video was shared widely on social media, and Asayel faced severe backlash from conservative Saudis claiming it does not represent their values, some also expressing anti-black racism towards her Eritrean ethnicity. Meccan authorities called for her arrest and released a statement on twitter claiming the song "offends the customs and traditions of the people of Mecca." 

The rapper has since been questioned by Saudi authorities. Asayel said in an interview with the Saudi media network Al Arabiya that the authorities only took issue with her not having the proper permit to film the video. It is likely that Saudi officials are having to back down in response to domestic and international backlash and to avoid more bad press. 

The initial response of Saudi officials to Asayel's music video was particularly ironic in light of the state's recent efforts to open up the country to more western-style forms of entertainment

Mohammad bin Salman's sweeping social reforms to liberalise the country have included lifting the ban on cinemas, and allowing women to attend public sporting events. The kingdom has also allowed mixed gender concerts and invited western female artists to perform, including Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, and Nicki Minaj, though Minaj decided to pull out of the concert in support of women's rights.

The Saudi state consistently excludes women from defining the terms of their own advancement

If Saudi rulers want to liberalise the nation, why did officials call for the arrest of a Saudi woman for filming a music video? And why are the women who fought for the very social reforms the state implemented still in prison?

The silencing of Saudi women who push social boundaries or speak out about gender equality demonstrates the unwillingness of Saudi rulers to concede control over women's societal roles to women themselves.

Instead, the state uses the regulation of women's behaviour to maintain social stability, appease religious leaders and conservative citizens concerned about "westernisation", and solidify its own social and political power.

The silencing of Saudi women 

Understanding the glaring contradictions between the Saudi state's gender reforms and its repression of women hinges on the question of how Saudi women's advancement is being defined and who is defining it.

It is the political and social agendas of Saudi rulers rather than the desires of Saudi women themselves that dictate how gender reform is being implemented in the nation, and it is for this reason that women remain excluded from determining the parameters of their own advancement.

Male rulers are making decisions about women's rights while ignoring or actively repressing the voices of women.

Saudi rulers have long regulated women's behaviour in order to bolster their social and political power, and maintain stability and rule. Since the nation's founding, they have co-opted patriarchal social structures to solidify the state's power over the national population, regulating women's behaviour in the public sphere by enforcing Islamic law and implementing restrictive gender policies.

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The state has also strategically allied itself with the Wahhabi religious establishment to create a unified vision of the kingdom as an Islamic nation - one in which women's religious purity is symbolic of the nation's values. 

The state closely monitors the religious establishment and censors opinions that do not align with its own agenda, ensuring that its male rulers have ultimate authority over decisions related to its female citizenry. 

At the same time, for good measure, the state has appointed women to visible public positions, such as ambassador to the United States and deputy minister of Labour and Social Development, and publicised the achievements of professional Saudi women through local media. Saudi women have also gained visibility as media presenters under the state-run media establishment.

But the state only elevates the voices of women who are willing to parrot the state's opinions and harshly represses the voices of women which do not align with the state's agendas.

Arrests and the alleged torture of women who engage in political or social resistance aim to curb women's organised activist movements and prevent them from gaining traction.

"Empowering" women is just a way for the state to serve its own political and social agendas. State rulers use gender reform and increased public visibility of women to garner support for the monarchy domestically, and improve political standing abroad. But they do not consider women's views and voices, even as they claim to advance women's status.

Male rulers are making decisions about women's rights while ignoring or actively repressing the voices of women

Asayel's creative expression should not be cause for arrest. Nor should Saudi women's organised activism.

On the contrary, Saudi women should have the authority to make decisions about their own lives in the public and private realms, and the freedom to express themselves as they choose. 

If Saudi rulers want to be known as patrons of women's empowerment, they should give Saudi women the social freedom to speak out about their own roles in society, and the political power and voice to define for themselves the narrative of women's advancement in their nation.

Alainna Liloia is a PhD student in Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. Her research is focused on gender, politics and nation building in the Arab Gulf states.

Follow her on Twitter: @missalainneous

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.