Imprisoned women activists betray real Saudi 'vision'

Imprisoned women activists betray real Saudi 'vision'
Comment: Until male guardianship is abolished, lifting the driving ban amounts to little more than a cosmetic rebranding effort, writes Sarah Al-Otaibi.
6 min read
01 Aug, 2018
Male guardians still control key decisions in women's lives in Saudi Arabia [AFP]
Those who have been following Saudi Arabia over the past several months have likely encountered a slew of sensational headlines regarding recent women's rights reforms in the Kingdom - most notably, the lift of the long-standing driving ban on women on 24 June.

Vogue Arabia marked the occasion with "A Celebration of Trailblazing Saudi Women". "Saudi Arabia woman celebrated end of driving ban with rap video," The Daily Mail reported. Aseel al-Hamad "made a further breakthrough for Saudi Arabian women" by being the first to drive a Formula One car, said The Guardian. Women in the Gulf appear to be breaking all sorts of barriers lately. The sky might as well be the limit, as they can now train to be air traffic controllers.

Accompanying such coverage comes praise for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and his 'Vision 2030'. Former UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson described the future monarch as "a reformer who deserves [Britain's] support" and went so far as to suggest that a female Saudi prime minister could be around the corner, never mind that such an office does not exist in KSA.

A desert kingdom empowering its long-oppressed female citizenry, finally allowing them to take the wheel, all thanks to the efforts of a thirty-two-year-old, forward- thinking, reformist crown prince. It's a neat, cheery picture - but one that masks a harsh reality.

Twelve major women's rights activists - all of whom at some point called for the driving ban to be lifted - have been detained in an ongoing wave of arrests  that began this past May.

Stories of female 'firsts' involve well-off elites and have no bearing on the vast majority of women

Prominent figures include Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Hatoon al-Fassi, and as of this Monday, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah.

Amnesty International and Women's March took up the activists' plight, creating a hashtag campaign to #FreeSaudiActivists and launching a petition pressing the UN to intervene.

Of course, this does not account for those arrested prior to the current crackdown who had voiced the same demands, like blogger Raif Badawi.

The irony was not lost on Badawi's wife Ensaf, who remarked from her husband's Twitter handle: "Congratulations, but remember that an innocent man has been in prison for more than six years for the crime of fighting for a woman's right to drive."

Regrettably, Vision 2030 does not include a provision for Badawi's release, nor that of any other long-held activist.

But the detention of high-profile individuals alone does not fully capture how these 'reforms' affect the average Saudi woman. Aside from the fact that stories of female 'firsts' involve well-off elites and have no bearing on the vast majority of women, hyping the lift of the driving ban as the beginning of a new era fails to account for a major obstacle: Male guardianship.

The system of male guardianship codified in Saudi law dictates that women must obtain permission from a male relative - a husband, father, brother or uncle - for even the most mundane of tasks, including journeying outside of one's home.

This effectively means that though the right to drive now exists in a de jure sense, male guardians are still able to forbid their women from driving for any reason. Women's rights in Saudi Arabia remain subject to male approval.

Dismantling the guardianship system does not seem to be an item on the 2030 agenda.

In mid- July, Saudi authorities arrested four men for 'helping' two women seeking to escape their families. Until male guardianship is abolished, lifting the driving ban amounts to little more than a cosmetic rebranding effort, rather than being a harbinger of further female empowerment.

Women who do dare to exercise their newfound right to drive face grave danger. Religious conservatives harassed Salma al-Barakati before setting her vehicle on fire. Attempting to justify their actions, they claimed her driving was 'Against the will of God'. She had been using the car to run errands for her elderly parents.

The history of rights movements tells us that de facto equality (that's to say the ability to truly exercise one's rights in safety), is as crucial as rights themselves. Again, there have been no guarantees from the crown prince on this matter.

Male guardians are still able to forbid their women from driving for any reason

This is not the first time that pushes for women's rights in Saudi Arabia have met with sharp reprisal. Today's developments strongly echo the early 1990s, when dozens of activists flouted the ban and drove around in protest. In response, scores of women were detained, and some even murdered by their families in 'honour killings'.

Taking stock of these underlying issues and historical precedents, the fanfare over the progress on driving feels dubious at best. Indeed, the litany of articles lauding the crown prince is partly an issue of western media not digging deep enough.

But even more remarkable is the amount of PR pushing the idea of a reformed Saudi Arabia, a phenomenon that eclipses Vision 2030 itself.

Last March, puzzled Londoners found their city flooded with lorries bearing portraits of MbS reading #WelcomeSaudiCrownPrince in golden script, attempting to counter the then-trending #SaudiPrinceNotWelcome hashtag.

This move came days ahead of the crown prince's first official visit to the UK. Hoardings featured adverts of the royal, declaring, "He is bringing change to Saudi Arabia" with the accompanying hashtag, #ANewSaudiArabia.

Far from being a one-off, the Saudi PR machine is able to mobilise whenever necessary. On 23 July, strange adverts again adorned the streets of London, this time attacking Qatar's Emir Tamim and his meeting with UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

A casting agency was even enlisted
to recruit protestors who were offered £20 in exchange for participating in demonstrations outside 10 Downing Street and the Qatari embassy. As usual, the stunt was topped off with an invented hashtag: #OpposeQatarVisit.

Whether promoting the image of a progressive Saudi Arabia where 'trailblazing' women are 'breaking barriers', or taking jabs at regional rivals, the Kingdom appears determined to influence the opinion of the general public in the UK and across the West.

And judging from the headlines and sound bites, media and politicians alike have lapped up the Saudi narrative. In the process, the vast majority of Saudi women scarcely benefiting from reform have been ignored.

Rather than taking the word of the nearest hoarding, those sympathetic to true women's rights reform should support those organisations questioning the buzz over Vision 2030: Amnesty International and Women's March as mentioned, but also the efforts of smaller groups such as Youth4Rights and World Citizens for Saudi Women.

Otherwise, reform will remain nothing but ornamental change designed to cover up the ugly truth.  

Sarah Al-Otaibi is a Women’s Rights activist based in London. Her insights on female empowerment in Saudi Arabia have been published by Women’s March Global.

Follow her on Twitter: @SarahAlOxoxo

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.