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Malia Bouattia

Saudi reforms are meaningless as long as male guardianship persists

Women and girls are forbidden from travelling without permission from their male guardians [Getty]

Date of publication: 16 July, 2018

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Comment: The locking up of activists serves as a reminder that the Kingdom is neither interested in women's rights, nor in greater democratisation, writes Malia Bouattia.
The fight for gender equality is surely an easy cause to champion, and women's advances towards greater equality with men should be an uncomplicated positive thing. 

Yet, when it comes to the recent news of Saudi Arabia lifting its driving ban on women, we are reminded of some of the many pitfalls of authoritarian state-led "reforms" for women.

In large part, this is because they often exist in parallel with countless other laws which effectively neutralise their benefits, or ensure they only serve a small, elite section of society.

It took almost 30 years of tough struggle for Saudi women and activists to finally lift a ban that prevented women from driving.

In the lead up to 24 June, the world's media rejoiced that such a demand was to be realised, and politicians of all stripes celebrated the 'reformist' and 'modernising' new leadership in the kingdom. But at the same time, countless people involved in the efforts to challenge male guardianship laws which still restrict women's freedom of mobility, were being rounded up and imprisoned.  

Since 15 May, there have been over a dozen arrests with most still currently being held in detention and facing potential sentences of up to 20-years in prison.

Arrestees include Saudi feminist activist fighting the abolition of male guardianship laws, Loujain al-Hathloul, university professor Azizah al-Yousef from the My Right, My Dignity campaign, and Eman al-Nafjan a feminist blogger and organiser who, alongside dozens of other Saudi women, publicly filmed herself driving her car and posted it online in 2011.

Any challenge from below is violently and mercilessly crushed

Also detained were Nouf Abdulaziz, a human rights activist and writer, Mayya al-Zahrani, Abdulaziz's friend who published her letter and was subsequently 'punished', activist and writer Mohammad al-Rabea, the lawyer Ibrahim al-Mudaymeegh who has represented countless women's and human rights activists, and Abdulaziz al-Meshal, a cosignatory of a funding application for a centre for women survivors of domestic abuse.

The message is clear: If the House of Saud is prepared to inch towards some reforms that might make women's lives slightly more comfortable, it is also hell bent on making clear to all local activists that this will not be their victory, and that they continue to be considered enemies of the monarchy.

Read more: Saudi woman's car set alight after driving ban lifted

It appears that limited reforms from above can take place, but demands for reform from below - which might be emboldened by the recent changes - must be kept in check, and crushed at all costs.

So what lies at the heart of these decisions, if not the victory of the countless Saudi activists who continue to fight tirelessly for liberation?

The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), is throwing much of his energy into filling his 2030 strategic vision for the kingdom, which aims to further integrate the Saudi economy into the world market, and lessen its dependence on oil revenues.

Part of this project involves his stated desire to move away from the automatic state subsidies paid to all Saudi nationals and encourage the growth of a national workforce and economy.

It is in this context that the recent reforms to women’s rights should be understood.

Indeed, women are the group of Saudi citizens most likely to join the workforce and open new businesses. However, the laws prohibiting them to travel internationally, or be economically active without male guardianship still stand in the way of their integration in this new economic plan.

Far from being struck by a sudden desire for equality or women's liberation, as our own prime minister would have it, MBS is moving towards greater integration of women in the workforce in order to facilitate his economic reforms.

The locking up of activists then serves as a reminder that the kingdom is neither interested in women's rights, nor in greater democratisation.

It also highlights the hypocrisy of our governments, who continue to justify war and economic sanctions in the Middle East on the basis of women's liberation and democratisation, while continuing to prop up, support and celebrate the Saudi regime.

Other close allies of the west in the region have followed a similar approach.

Most strikingly, Mohammed VI of Morocco has equally presented his kingdom as modern, open to the world and involved in progressive reform. The kingdom has repeatedly presented itself as at the forefront of change in the region, and claimed that gender equality is a key aspect of this process.

True liberation is never handed down from above

Princess Lalla Meriem of Morocco, for example, declared on International Women's day, that  "His Majesty King Mohammed VI, may God assist him, does all he can to guarantee to women the fulfillment of their rights, improve their situation, and open promising future prospects for them."

However, much like its Saudi counterpart, the reality on the ground remains very far from liberation or democratisation.

Indeed, while women continue to campaign for basic rights such as equal access to inheritance, the Moroccan kingdom also continues to violently repress and arrest demonstrators and democratisation activists.

Earlier this month for example, 53 activists of the Rif movement were handed out over 300 years of collective jail time for 'offenses' such as "plotting to undermine the security of the state". Democracy and crumbs of reform might be handed out from above, but any challenge from below is violently and mercilessly crushed.

It is striking how much continuity there is between current pro-western dictatorships in the MENA region, and the old tried and tested approaches by colonial regimes over a century ago.

Indeed, both the British in Egypt and the French in Algeria justified their presence and their occupation by claiming it set the foundations for reforms and women's liberation.

The 'natives', so the narrative went, were not ready for freedom and needed to be eased into change and modernity.

The imposition of a limited, top down, and western series of reforms went hand in hand with violent repression against any indigenous struggle for freedom.

Much the same logic was at play in the recent US-UK wars and post-war period in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

It should perhaps come as no surprise, then, that the dictators who are today the West's closest allies, follow the same logic.

This reality should also serve as a reminder to us all, that whether in the Middle East or at home, true liberation is never handed down from above, never a gift from the rich and powerful, but in fact always wrestled out of their hands by the struggle and sacrifice of countless ordinary people.


You can Support Saudi Feminists by signing the international petition, and by following the hashtag #StandwithSaudiFeminists.


Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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.

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