Saudi Arabia, revolutionary forces and women’s rights…

Coming across the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page, I decided to look into women’s revolutionary and political role within Saudi Arabia and its relation to the current political situation. Saudi Arabia’s military assistance breaking up protests in Bahrain to uphold the minority Sunni Royal rule has upset Iran (resulting in a sizzling of diplomatic relations between Bahrain and Iran), increasing religious tensions thus increasing Iran’s involvement and criticism. Alongside Saudi’s desire to uphold a Sunni rule, they are desperate to prevent a furthering of democratic fever that has already became part of their own political climate. Furthermore, such actions may have wider political reverberations:

Both Iraq and Lebanon have substantial Shi’ite populations competing with Sunni Muslims and other sects for control of the countries. Iran has been active in Lebanon by backing the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement, which has emerged as the country’s biggest military force and dominant political party.

Such conflict wasn’t solely related to religion, however; the protests have been governed around desires for better rights and economic, social and political positions. Actions such as Bahrain’s and Saudi Arabia’s have only depened the religious associations. It is noticeable that Saudi Arabia’s actions in Bahrain are having counter-productive (for them) effects in their own country with a strong influence on protests within Saudi Arabia.

Searching for articles on women’s rights within Saudi Arabia, there seems to be a burst of recent news articles upon the subject. For instance, there is an interesting interview with Wajeeha al-Huwayder, a Saudi writer and activist, on women’s position within Saudi Arabi. She paints a dark picture of women’s rights, the lack of change, with ‘cosmetic’ changes hiding the real power inequality where women are treated as the property of men. It is the only country in the world where women can’t drive and it has been rated 130th out of 134 countries for gender equality. She is also critical of the Bahrain intervention, outlining the connotations such actions have:

There are people who feel oppressed and who are demanding their rights. That does not constitute an external attack, nor is it a natural disaster that requires their support. I view this matter as being an internal affair that needs to be contained within Bahrain’s borders, with the Bahrain state listening to the people’s legitimate demands. When the matter grows and escalates to the point where troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries intervene, that means that they have canceled out their internal situation; they have canceled their situation as a sovereign state, and now a bigger and stronger state comes in to run their internal affairs. I personally consider the matter as interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs; Bahrain itself needs to solve these problems that concern the Bahrainis above all others. No Gulf State has the right to interfere in this matter.

However, discussing Saudi Arabia protests, there are concerns that they have yet to really challenge the regime as a whole, with narrower (still important) demands for the release of prisoners, for instance:

In some of the Shi’ite areas — in Saudi Arabia we have the Ishmaelites in the south and the Shi’ites in the eastern region — there are some demonstrations calling for their rights. But they are simple demonstrations that have not targeted the regime as an institution. Rather, they are calling for the release of some prisoners — some of whom have been imprisoned for up to 15 years — who have not been tried…None of the demonstrators in the eastern region have challenged the regime as such, nor have they raised their voices against the state. They have, rather, demanded a legitimate right. What has happened? The same as what happens in any autocratic state: they were faced by riot forces who suppressed them.

A big problem that women in Saudi face is unemployment, with it being the essential force pushing up Saudi’s overall unemployment rate; prejudice and oppressive practices regarding women (‘guardianship’) are crucial barriers (to be discussed). However, as gathered by the interview with al-Huwaider (even though, her views are said by some to be shaped by Western conceptions and thus, fail to represent the majority of Saudi women), in comparison to other Arab countries such as Egypt an Tunisia, a comparable feminist movement has said to have been so far resisted. However, this shouldn’t be a surprise. As in the second wave feminist movement, Third Wave feminism and intersectional analyses developed with many critiquing Western feminists biased focus upon white, middle class women; Saudi women may be acting out against the Western notions of women’s rights that they associate with activists such as al-Huwaider (even though her arguments are essential for women’s liberation struggle). Whilst feminism has pluralized its focus, just because women aren’t embracing the feminist logo (and it’s clear Western connotations) doesn’t mean they aren’t embracing the central goals of feminist struggle; they are instead reinterpreting it in their own way:

The definition of feminism remains a sticking point with young Saudis who say they want a feminist movement on their own terms, which includes Islam as a major component. Alduwaisi says she prefers a “Saudi-Islamic” feminist movement, noting that she wants rights that consider religion and a Sharia-based judicial system.

Such a difference in interpretation isn’t new. Venezuelan women resisted views of equality coming from the USA/UK Suffrage movement, seeing it as a threat to the Catholic influenced maternal/private roles women had. However, in time, changes towards embracing this equality focused rhetoric started to take place – essentially, change takes time, and movements to resistance and recognition of rights are important. So, occurrences such as the creation of the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page that I mentioned above, by Rasha Alduwaisi, 30, a Saudi mother, should be actively encouraged. There are movements in the right direction, with more women entering education (despite the low level of employment rates, and gender concentration of subjects), providing them a voice but there is age and class differences. Class wise, two princesses started a campaign “My Guardian Knows Best for Me” to defend the status quo guardianship system, in response to Wajeha al-Huwaider’s campaign against the mahram (‘guardian’) law that has resulted in men owning and controlling women. Importantly, Huwaider argues that the mahram law is not often interpreted as being based upon Islamic belief, therefore not undermining the potential for a ‘Saudi-Islamic’ feminist movement to challenge the regressive mahram law.

It will take time. As in the abolitionism movement, women gradually began to realise that whilst they had some men who supported their right (as in Saudi), they also had to engage in separate political action as political activists and women to gain rightful recognition as subjects; such reflections may be true in moving towards equality for Saudi women, especially given the current revolutionary context within the Middle East.


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