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Saving Saudi women, but from what? Open in fullscreen

Ruby Hamad

Saving Saudi women, but from what?

Saudi Arabia is Australia's second biggest trading partner in the region [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 February, 2019

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Comment: If western governments were truly committed to improving women's lives, they'd stop propping up the authoritarian regimes that oppress them, writes Ruby Hamad.
In November 2001, fresh into the quagmire in Afghanistan, then-First Lady Laura Bush gave a radio address in which she condemned the repression of women by the Taliban.

"The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women," she intoned.

Subsequent reports from the US State Department as well as media offerings such as Time magazine's 'Lifting the Veil,' provided a bleak insight into the brutal policies of the hardline Islamist group: Afghan women were largely restricted to the home, forced to cover their entire bodies, denied access to education and health care.

All this is true. But there is an unpleasant fact about truth that we don't discuss anywhere near enough; sometimes partial truths can do even more damage than outright lies.

Missing from the official narrative was the contextual information of how the Taliban got into power, what role Afghan women saw for themselves, and what policies would most have helped them.

The Taliban emerged out of the Mujaheddin, self-styled holy warriors funded by the US military that joined forces to resist the Soviet invasion in 1979, prior to which hardline Islamists enjoyed only minimal support from the population.

Ten billion dollars and 10 years later, they were running the country. Two weeks before Laura Bush's address, Tahmeena Faryal, a representative of the radical Afghan Women's Alliance (RAWA) addressed the US House of Representatives, telling them that both the Taliban and US allies known as the Northern Alliance, "are criminals and we don't want them ruling Afghanistan".

We talk about the plight of Saudi women as though it has nothing to do with us until they turn up on our national doorstep

Women's groups demanded the exclusion of all warlords from the political processes, demilitarisation of the country, and funding to enable the development of women's social and legal rights.

This did not gel with the US vision for Afghan women whose repression was framed primarily in terms of what the Taliban permitted them to wear.

As such, defeating the Taliban meant mission accomplished for women's rights. Eighteen years later, the Taliban is officially deposed yet still active in 70 percent of the country and in control of 4 percent of it.

Many of the restrictions they placed on women remain in place and appeals from women's groups for help in funding access to education and health for women and girls have gone unheeded. 
This victory for women's rights was purely symbolic.

What have we learned from this? 

Not a thing, judging by the discussion following 'Escape From Saudi,' a news documentary from Australia's Four Corners programme that screened this week.

Among the explosive revelations made was the allegation that Australian Border Force (ABF) were questioning Saudi women who arrived in Australia alone, as to why they were travelling without a male guardian.

When some of these women made their intention to seek asylum known to officials, they were promptly sent back to where they came from. It's a scenario almost guaranteed to garner maximum feminist outrage. It's also a prime example of feminist rhetoric appropriated without a feminist sensibility.

The guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia are only one aspect of the Saudi monarchy's draconian rule. Others include jailing and flogging dissenting bloggers, executing critical clerics, persecuting the Shia minority, waging war on its Yemeni neighbour and using its formidable military arsenal to crush a short lived uprising in Bahrain in 2011.

That intervention saw the unpopular Bahraini government hold on to its own power; seven years later we see some of the fruits of this intervention in the breathtakingly unjust process currently underway in Thailand, where registered refugee and promising football player Hakeem al Araibi, already granted residency in Australia, is on the verge of deportation to Bahrain following an unlawful Interpol notice.

Al Araibi claims he'd been assured by Australian authorities it was safe to travel to Thailand for his honeymoon. It was Australian authorities that issued the red alert.

We've been here before.

In 2005, Australian Federal Police tipped off Indonesian authorities as to the plans of the Bali Nine, the young Australian drug mules nabbed trying to exit Indonesia with millions of dollars of heroin strapped to their bodies.

When we appropriate the rhetoric of feminism without making the necessary commitments to improving the lives of women, our words ring hollow

Two of these nine have since being executed, one has been freed, and the remainder are serving life sentences. Yes, they were guilty. They are also Australian citizens that, had they been arrested here, would have served their time and been given a chance at rehabilitation.

I struggle to see the point in boasting of our liberal democratic values when we seem to be exporting our own social and economic problems to be solved by draconian and punitive measures elsewhere. What are our values? What does Australia stand for?

Read more: Australia 'colluding' with Riyadh, and barring entry to Saudi women travelling alone

That Saudi Arabia is under scrutiny for its austere and punitive brand of Islam that - with the aid of western military and financial backing –  it has managed to export across the world is in itself a good thing.

That the context of its power and the role of the West in creating and maintaining the Wahhabi monarchy is suddenly erased from the story is not surprising, but disappointing nonetheless.

The spectacle of Saudi tanks rolling into Bahrain to quell demonstrations by Bahraini citizens against their government did not propel us to action. Millions of starving Yemenis displaced and dispossessed by Saudi artillery did not propel us to action other than to sell ever more weapons and commercial goods to the Saudi government.

I struggle to see the point in boasting of our liberal democratic values when we seem to be exporting our own social and economic problems

The West is no mere bystander to the oppression of Saudi women, or any Arab citizens. During the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings, demonstrators made a point of photographing the empty tear gas canisters that that been fired upon them moments earlier: Made in the USA.

When we appropriate the rhetoric of feminism without making the necessary commitments to improving the lives of women, our words ring hollow.

In April 2017, around the time young Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom was detained in the Phillipines en route to Australia before being forced back to the kingdom - never to be heard from again - Australia's Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment visited Saudi Arabia along with a business delegation. Also visiting the Saudis in October 2017 was the Australian Minister for Defence.

Indeed, 
according to the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), there were at least seven high profile visits between Australian and Saudi dignitaries from 2016 to 2018.

Most recently, the Saudi Minister for Defence attended the September 2018 Land Forces showcase of military equipment in Adelaide, while a delegation from Saudi Arabia's Shura Council visited Australia at the invitation of the parliament.

The DFAT website tells us that Australia and Saudi Arabia share a "friendly relationship" and that the absolute monarchy is Australia's second biggest trading partner in the region.

It's a scenario almost guaranteed to garner maximum feminist outrage. It's also a prime example of feminist rhetoric appropriated without a feminist sensibility

In 2016-17, the two nations traded goods and services to the tune of $2.14 billion. Our biggest export to the kingdom is motor vehicles and we also export meat, dairy, and other produce. Likewise, Bahrain is an important regional trading partner and in 2016 alone, Australia exported $812.2 million dollars' worth of goods mostly the chemical compound alumina, as well as meat and dairy produce to Bahrain.

It is a strange world we have created in which capital, resources, and political leaders are free to traverse the globe with barely a restriction, but civilian human beings in desperate need are turned away at airports to a horribly anonymous fate, or sequestered on island prisons until driven insane by the crushed hopes for a freedom that must have seemed so close for such a brief moment in time.

Even stranger is our contentment to building our wealth from goods sold to governments that we know oppress their own, and other citizens and yet extricate ourselves from any responsibility, blaming the others' "inferior" culture and religion instead.

We are proud of our economy and the advanced lifestyle it grants us, but what do we stand for? What are our values?

We talk about the plight of Saudi women as though it has nothing to do with us until they turn up on our national doorstep. We say we want to "save" them. We kid ourselves.

Our freedom in Australia, such as it is, does not come for free; it is paid for in alumina, animals and the deadly shards of shattered Arab lives.


Ruby Hamad is a writer and Phd candidate in media and postcolonial studies at the University of New South Wales. Born in Lebanon and raised in Australia, she splits her time between Sydney and New York. 


Follow her on Twitter: @rubyhamad


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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