Why #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen reflects a wider problem with Arab feminism

Why #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen reflects a wider problem with Arab feminism
It is hypocritical to talk about racism, classism and to condemn the kafala system yet allow other fellow Arab feminists to perpetuate a racist and classist discourse in their campaign.
4 min read
03 Sep, 2017
Bangladeshi migrant workers en route Saudi Arabia [Getty]
Trapped under the mercy of the state, their fathers and husbands, women in Saudi Arabia lack autonomy and freedom. Misogyny on steroids forces them to submit to a society in which they are held accountable to not only their own personal choices, but the choices of others around them as both honour and blame culture rage on in the cycle of oppression.

Though, as the Arab world began to rise up, so did Saudi women. Many hashtags emerged as rebellions began to surface, such as #Women2Drive. By organising among themselves to tweet in various languages, the hashtags gained global momentum. Another hashtag which has been around for a number of years that too has become a worldwide hit, is #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen.

Despite the hashtag gaining support, it has also been criticised by an array of people who find the hashtag offensive because of its strikingly classist and racist connotations.

The movement itself is heavily focused on Saudi women itself, directly at the expense of poorer non-Saudi women within the kingdom. The voices of expat women in Saudi Arabia, whom, unless are able to afford to live in compounds, are not only subject to guardianship laws, but they live to supplement what Saudi women lose through patriarchy in abysmal conditions, at the expense of their own human rights.

This is not only exclusive to Saudi Arabia, the institutional racism which infiltrates into the feminist movement reflects itself in mainstream Arab feminism. Too often, seeing Arab women stand up against misogyny is treated with such excitement that little regard is taken on whether Arab feminism is taking on the same racist properties postcolonial feminists critique white feminists for. 

#StopEnslavingArabWomen does nothing more than mock slavery and erase other injustices within the kingdom. This is especially when women in Saudi Arabia do benefit from oppressive systems, such as the kafala, which effectively makes expat workers property of their employers.

This is especially problematic when such exploitations are exasperated because of the same social media platforms that are helping racist hashtags by the Saudi feminist movement grow are being used by other women in Saudi Arabia to oppress and humiliate working class expat women.

Earlier this year, a woman became famous in Saudi Arabia for being called into houses with "misbehaving" housemaids and began to film herself on Snapchat interrogating and terrifying them. Using the term "slavery" when slavery in its literal sense affects working class expat women to this degree is nothing short of erasure and bourgeoisation of a cause that should transcend race and class within the kingdom.

When The New Arab contacted one of the founders of the hashtag Moudhi al-Johani, she had asked to elaborate on what she referred to as "accusations towards the hashtag," and refused to reply upon further explanation.

Blind solidarity

A number of Arab feminists have supported the hashtag without question, and justifying themselves upon criticism.

By "following the lead of Saudi" with supporting the racist hashtag because Saudi women "believe they are being enslaved", this justifies the detrimental systematic racism not just within Saudi Arabia, but across the region. It is a weak argument used to hide behind racism rather than facing it head on.

Though, what gives the hashtag more legitimacy is when it is parroted by those who say they are against the kafala system in Saudi Arabia.

For renowned Arab feminist and author Mona Eltahawy to condemn the system – which suppresses Saudi women and migrant workers without marrying the two sidelines – creates disingenuous connotations of solidarity, allowing the Arab feminist movement to shy away from addressing its toxic racism.

This also calls for women who have been campaigning for their government to change to uphold and justify immigration policy of their state, claiming they "continue to live in dignity".

It is purely hypocritical to talk about racism, classism and to condemn the kafala system yet allow other fellow Arab feminists to perpetuate a racist and classist discourse in their campaigns.

Class and race should be essential to the Arab women's liberation project, because it is not only Arab women who exist in the Middle East and North Africa, it is they who suffer as a result of Arab supremacy, misogyny and classism all at once.