Saudi women can drive. Now it's time to address the Arab feminist movement's structural racism

Saudi women can drive. Now it's time to address the Arab feminist movement's structural racism
Blog: The lifting of the ban is rightly time to celebrate, but it is also a chance to evaluate the inclusivity of the campaign, writes Diana Alghoul.
3 min read
26 Sep, 2017
Women in Saudi Arabia will finally soon be allowed to drive legally [AFP]
As Saudi Arabia finally lifts its ban on women driving, the world is understandably reacting with excitement and joy. Women have not been able to drive in Saudi Arabia for longer than most of our readers have been alive. All this will change next year, following a new decree that will allow Saudi women to drive in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia had become tainted by this ban. It was the go-to-point for every activist advocating for women's rights in the kingdom - or for anyone critical of the Saudi regime.

Because of this, the lifting of the women's driving ban is a sign of the dismantling of one of the principal international societal barriers that have been built between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world.

This was also a fight. It must not be forgotten that Saudi women were arrested for their activism. Women dedicated their lives and rebelled against their state and society for this to happen.

But there is a wider context to the ban being lifted, and the Arab women's liberation project must not be overshadowed by tonight's headlines.

During the campaign to lift the ban on women driving, the movement was criticised for the alleged racism and classism it purportedly perpetuated in the Arab feminist movement. With this victory, the criticism must not be forgotten.

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There has long been a seeming dismissal of poorer and non-Saudi women within the campaign. They forget that expat women, including domestic servants - unless they are able to afford to live in compounds - are subjected to the same form of sexist oppression at the hands of state and society, but have even fewer avenues of protest than Saudi women.

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The structural racism in Saudi Arabia is all-pervasive, and it can be seen in the absence of non-Saudi women resident in Saudi Arabia being given a platform to discuss women's rights.

Non-Saudi women are being enslaved within the kingdom through the notorious kafala system, which essentially makes employees the property of their Saudi sponsor. It is a system which fuels human trafficking and is an embodiment of the systematic racism embedded so deeply in Saudi politics and society.

It is important to celebrate victories like the scrapping of the women driving ban.

But when we do so, we must not forget the wider issues facing women in Saudi Arabia. We must not forget that people were entertained by a Saudi woman terrifying house-keepers by going to family homes and humiliating domestic servants while recording the abuse on Snapchat.

It is also easy in our celebrations to forget about the Indian victim of human trafficking and the way she was denied water and abused when the Saudi police found her and returned her to her sponsors' household.

Our excitement does not justify turning a blind eye to the classist and racist oppression that the Arab feminist movement has largely ignored, and which the Saudi state continues to get away with propagating.

It is time for the movement to evaluate the choices it has made in its campaigning, and for a structural dismantling of the oppression faced by all women in Saudi Arabia.

Follow Diana Alghoul on Twitter: @SuperKnafeh