By Erica Anjum
A young woman in Orange County, California, theoretically has access to the same opportunities as a young man; except, it is still socially acceptable for her not to take advantage of her rights. As the most coveted variety of freedom is one that is easy to casually reject, in some ways and in some places today, it is better to be a woman than a man. In Saudi Arabia, however, it is definitely still highly preferable to be a man.
In both developed and developing nations, women continue to be denied rights, and in places, personhood. In the landscape of gender-inequality, Saudi Arabia remains perhaps the most notorious for its treatment of women in contemporary times. Even conservative neighboring states such as Yemen, where women stroll the streets shrouded head-to-toe in traditional black burqas, cite proudly that at least their women can drive and vote.
Nonetheless, the last few decades have witnessed monumental strides for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia: public education has been made available to women since the 1960s, and they now comprise over half of college graduates. Women have permission to work, although they only represent 14% of the current workforce. Furthermore, in 2011, King Abdullah announced that women would also be allowed to vote and run in municipal elections for positions in the Majlis Al-Shura (a government advisory group), although not before 2015. For the first time in history, a Saudi woman was even sent to the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
There is a catch, however, to all of it: male guardians (fathers, brothers, husbands) still choose whether the women in their families can pursue education, work, travel, who they marry, and whether they can seek needed medical attention. Women must still be accompanied by male relatives when they leave the house, must adhere to strict dress codes; and of course, Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where they are still not allowed to drive. Moreover, laws to protect victims of rape and domestic abuse are weak and insufficient at best.
The status of women in Saudi Arabia has historically been systematic and institutionalized: expectations and exclusion are formally incorporated, upheld, enforced (and deviations punished) via the legal framework. More so than the actual status of women which is certainly in itself deplorable, this institutional aspect is perhaps what has encouraged such widespread and eager criticism of Saudi practices: during this more enlightened era, it is wrong to criticize the culture of another people, but it is always acceptable to criticize their government.
However, institutions are culturally embedded and this may pose an even bigger challenge to progress than the laws themselves. For example, the October 26, 2013 “Driving Protest” inspired men like Sheikhs Nasser al-Omar and Mohammed al-Nujaimi to quickly organize and voice their concerns to the King. These men fear that further extending rights to women will lead to the overall moral debasement of Saudi society and may also have long-lasting political consequences. Behind these fears, the suspicion persists that Western imperialism, and perhaps even an intentional attempt by foreign powers to weaken the Kingdom, lurks underneath progressive platforms. Consequently, not only are activists socially persecuted, stalked and threatened, success at organizing and protesting is often swiftly met with indefinite periods of incarceration.
Surprisingly, many of the kingdom’s women quietly back the rightist hardliners. Some have even formed women’s groups to guard against the evils of Western culture penetrating and defiling the Kingdom’s values and politics. While there are activists within the country, their inability to gain popular support over the years and orchestrate a mass protest demonstrates how deeply ingrained conservative traditions are throughout most of Saudi society.
Interestingly, even activists such as 60 year old psychologist Madiha al-Ajroush state that they “don’t want to break any laws,” while pursuing their agenda. Thus, it appears that even the rebels have not broken free of the culture of acquiescence long imposed on women via Saudi traditions. Nor do they seem to be in a hurry to divorce such values as they pursue progressive reforms.
Furthermore, as the Saudi brand of Islam is almost indistinguishable from the local culture, dissatisfaction with change often surfaces as accusations of un-Islamic behavior. For instance, Princess Reema Bint Bandar al-Saud, who runs a Harvey Nichols Department store in Riyadh, recently received a phone call from an irate customer regarding the Princess’s choice to play music in the store. The complaint came from one of her most frequent shoppers-a woman who has spent thousands of dollars during each of her many visits.
Princess Reema decided to do away with the music but has continued to push for something even more controversial: building a staff of female employees. While the Princess believes women’s empowerment and inclusion are imperative for the Kingdom’s future prosperity, the women who work for her are frequently driven by more immediate economic needs. For them, joining the workforce generally is not a political statement, act of rebellion, or even a matter of pride. In fact, they and their families often hide the truth from others like teenagers hide tattoos from their parents. The laws may have relaxed, but the taboos remain strong.
Amusingly, conservatives may be right to worry about Western imperialism shaping Saudi culture and politics, albeit not through the direct and targeted interference by foreign governments that the Sheiks have generally feared. Travel, education abroad, social media, and satellite television have proven to be highly effective vectors for transferring cultural values. As this 21st century form of imperialism has resulted from simply opening channels for information exchange as well as increased mobility across borders, it is more difficult to combat. War cannot be waged against some foreign “other” as the perpetrators are the country’s own citizens.
For example, Princess Reema’s father served as ambassador to the United States for 17 years: she herself grew up in Washington D.C. and attended George Washington University. Her American upbringing and education has no doubt influenced her outlook and drive for strengthening the role of women in Saudi society. Likewise, women such as Madiha Al-Ajroush and the others who participated in the Driving Protest, learned how to drive and obtained their licenses abroad.
Of course, a few rebellious princesses and well-to-do professionals will not be enough to precipitate constitutional changes. Before any laws pass, cultural values must shift at a more popular level. Fortunately for the rebels, it does appear that exposure to the norms and practices of other cultures is slowly shaking the rigid adherence to traditions which has characterized the nation’s men, but more importantly, women, for so long.
Meanwhile, the activists continue to have humble goals. They are neither looking for a revolution, nor for an aggressive campaign launched by sympathizers from neighboring and distant nations to help their cause. They do believe, however, that a new generation that has wholeheartedly embraced the global culture of hashtags and retweets can ultimately bring about the progress they have so long waited for.