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How Saudi Arabia uses women’s rights reforms against women’s rights and reform

The crown prince’s approach to women’s rights still excludes feminists.

- March 29, 2019

On Thursday, three of the leading Saudi women’s rights advocates were temporarily released in a second round of trials that began Wednesday. The hearings, which were closed to the press, allegedly accused the activists of having contact with foreign diplomats and journalists. Following the first hearing on March 13, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reported that the charges appeared related to the activists’ advocacy and activism for human rights in the kingdom.

The detained activists included high-profile feminists such as Aziza al-Yousef, who was among the three released, as well as Eman al-Nafjan and Loujain al-Hathloul. Hathloul became the face of the campaign against the ban on women’s driving after her arrest several times for defying the ban. Hathloul, Yousef and Nafjan also advocated to end the kingdom’s guardianship system, which requires women to obtain the consent of a male relative for major decisions.

The trial of leading women’s rights activists shines a spotlight on the contradictions in the new Saudi approach to women’s rights. Even if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accedes to international pressure and acquits the detained activists, their detention and trial communicated a strong message that feminists are not welcomed in Mohammed’s model of state feminism.

Detention and trials of leading women’s rights activists

The women were arrested less than a month before the kingdom was due to lift the ban on women’s driving in 2018. The activists appeared March 13 before the Criminal Court for the first time. They were charged with crimes under the country’s draconian cybercrimes law, which can carry a sentence of five years in jail. The public prosecutor’s office based its charges on alleged confessions by the activists, claiming that the activists admitted contacting human rights organizations.

Families and relatives of the activists complained that the women had no access to legal representation. They accused the regime of allegedly torturing the activists while in custody. Saudi officials have denied the allegations and responded harshly to criticism from human rights organizations and Western governments. Calls by the Canadian government to release detained activists, Samar Badawi — recipient of the International Women of Courage award, and Nassima al-Sadah — women’s rights advocate and Shiite human rights activist — resulted in a diplomatic spat between the two countries as Saudi officials responded by cutting economic and diplomatic ties.

State feminism and feminist activism

The simultaneous reform initiatives and detention campaigns carried out by Mohammed are intimately linked to his model of state feminism, a feminism minus the feminists. Under this model, the crown prince offers limited advancements in women’s rights to appeal to the Western audience and to consolidate his power amid a shifting economic and political landscape. While some of these reforms date back to King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and are popular among young men and women in Saudi Arabia, they still do not seem to translate to greater democracy and wider participation throughout the kingdom.

The move to offer limited advancement for women in Saudi Arabia can be traced back to Abdullah who ascended to the throne in 2005. Under Abdullah, the agenda of women’s rights figured in the regime’s discussions and policies. It contributed to consolidating the legitimacy of the regime through not only its bargain with the religious establishment but also its new social and economic reform policies.

For example, until 2002, the education of women was under the control of the General Presidency for Girls’ Education, a government body overseen by conservative clerics. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, also known as the ”religious police,” or “Mutaween,” was accused of allegedly hindering rescue efforts of the 2002 Mecca schoolgirl fire to uphold gender segregation. Following the public outrage over the death of at least 14 students, the-then Crown Prince Abdullah, placed girls’ education under the Ministry of Education ushering a new turn in the agenda of women’s rights to education.

Under King Abdullah, women also held for the first-time ministerial positions, they competed in the Olympics Games in 2012 and secured the generous King Abdullah Scholarship program allowing them to study abroad. Abdullah also granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections, and he appointed 30 women to the Shura council.

State feminism without feminists

Independent feminists were excluded from these political opportunities. Under King Salman, in the 2015 municipal elections — the first elections in which women were able to participate — officials banned Loujain al-Hathloul and Nassima al-Sada from participation. The monarchy’s relations with different women’s groups thus mediated their access to these new openings and political opportunities.

This differential system of opening and closing figures squarely in the reform policies carried out by Mohammed. The arrest and smear campaigns against activists who campaigned for women‘s rights to drive underscore the monarchy’s attempt to ensure that potential challengers do not occupy new openings created by recent reform policies.

Pro-government media outlets present groups that oppose the monarchy as corrupt and portray them as a threat to society. For instance, following the arrest of some of the feminists who had campaigned for women’s rights to drive, several pro-government media outlets and social media groups launched a smear campaign tarnishing the activists’ reputation. They branded the activists as “traitors” and “agents of foreign embassies.”

The detention and trial of activists contributes to consolidating the image of these feminists as traitors in the public eye. While Saudi officials are yet to confirm the charges against the activists, the alleged charges — related to their activism and contacts with other activists, foreign diplomats and journalists — frame them as foreign agents conspiring against the society. In so doing, the monarchy criminalizes independent activists under the pretense of protecting the interests of ordinary women and citizens.

It is hard to expect that the political system in Saudi Arabia will open up and encourage broader participation, notwithstanding the crown prince’s reform rhetoric. The trial of feminist activists and the active efforts to portray them as traitors is thus necessary for his model of governance. For the agenda of women’s rights, it means the monarchy orchestrates a model of feminism minus the feminists.

Nermin Allam is an assistant professor of Political Science at Rutgers University at Newark.