Women's lib in Saudi: How the West is kidding itself

Just last week, Salma al-Shehab, a Ph.D. student and mother of two, was sentenced to 34 years in prison for using her Twitter account in support of dissidents.
Representative image
Representative image


NEW YORK: With promises of a “moderate” Islam, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has quickly shoved the austere kingdom into a brave new age featuring Formula One racing, Justin Bieber and Mariah Carey concerts, and cinemas and restaurants where men and women mingle.

I repeat: men and women. For this, without fail, you will hear: M.B.S. has liberated Saudi women, allowing them to drive and loosening the state-enforced control by their male guardians.

On closer inspection, however, the emancipation of women is not all it seems. First, it’s hard to discuss women’s freedom while Saudi Arabia prosecutes women (and men) as terrorists for so much as dabbling in politics.

Just last week, Salma al-Shehab, a Ph.D. student and mother of two, was sentenced to 34 years in prison for using her Twitter account in support of dissidents.

But even the mundane freedoms of women’s lives remain straitened. M.B.S. indeed abolished the ban on women driving, which had always stood out as an outlandish source of international scorn.

He also removed some of the legal enforcements of the dreaded guardianship system, which consigned every Saudi woman to the near total control of a male family member.

More women are believed to have entered the work force now that the government allows them to move around more easily.

M.B.S. defanged the notorious religious police and ended the mandatory gender segregation they imposed on every public space. These are real, laudable changes. The complicating question is, who can take advantage of them?

The recent reforms mean that if a woman has been born or married into a clan of freethinking men willing to let her do things, the state will not interfere.

But for the many Saudi women who lack a benevolent male guardian, there is no remedy. If, for example, a woman’s husband or father doesn’t think she should get her driving license, she is still compelled to obey his dictate.

In other words, according to Saudi legal experts I consulted, the changes are crafted to avoid discomfiting men: The government will no longer legally force men to keep the women of their household under heightened control — but it won’t force men to emancipate women, either.

“For women who are unfortunate, who do not have the support of their guardians, they do not have the opportunity to enjoy the openings in society,” explained Hala Aldosari, a Saudi scholar and rights activist. “I’d say this is the majority of women in Saudi Arabia, who live in more conservative families.”

“Reforms are done for certain types of people,” she added. “They are not done for all kinds of women.”

M.B.S. has boasted extravagantly that his new personal status law is a “major qualitative leap” in women’s rights. I read the law, which appeared quietly on a Saudi government website in Arabic without official translation.

I had some idea what I’d find, having heard mutterings from Saudi women and human rights activists, but I was still taken aback by how starkly it fell short of the rhetoric surrounding M.B.S.’s purported social transformation. Saudi women still need permission from a male guardian to marry.

True, it forbids guardians to force their charges to marry against their will. But the paternalistic role of the male guardian is fully encoded in the law — with control over women passing among fathers, husbands, uncles, brothers and even sons in a prescribed order of importance — and since a marriage agreement involves the “offer of the guardian and the acceptance of the husband,” a guardian could likely prevent a woman from marrying according to her desire.

And so it is: freedom at the whim of a father, liberation at the pleasure of the prince.

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