The meaning of rights for women
It’s not just about cars, argues Madawi Al-Rasheed
Source: the world today | february & march | 2012Saudi
The meaning of rights for womenIt’s not just about cars, argues Madawi Al-RasheedNews reports from Saudi Arabia often ap-pear bizarre and outrageous: young wom-en lashed for defying a driving ban; women accused of witchcraft beheaded; victims of rape stoned to death. Such practices are not unusual in Saudi Arabia and regularly exposed by organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
The 2010 Global Gender Gap Report gave Saudi Arabia a high gender gap index, ranking it 129th out of 134 countries. Here, decisions about a woman’s education, her career choice, even health issues are made by male guardians. But Saudi women are mobilising to expose this discrimination.
Inspired by the Arab Spring, women ac-tivists launched campaigns to be given a role in 2010’s municipal elections; they demanded to be allowed to drive; unem-ployed school teachers assembled outside the gates of the Education and Labour Ministries demanding jobs; others ap-peared at the gates of the Ministry of Inte-rior demanding fair trials and release of unlawfully detained relatives.
The Saudi leadership bans all forms of civil activism. Taking part in a demonstra-tion can lead to a serious prison sentence. Women who defy the ban on driving are put in jail and interrogated. Manal al-Sha-rif, who organised a campaign to lift the ban, was imprisoned for nine days in June 2010, while Shaima Justiniah, caught driv-ing in Jeddah, was sentenced to 10 lashes.
King Abdullah has sought to convince the West that he is a great gender reformer. Improved employment opportunities for women have been promised since 2005, a new all-women university was created in 2008, and last year, the king pledged that women would be appointed to the Consul-tative Council and be allowed to vote and stand in future municipal elections. Re-cently, shops selling women’s lingerie were banned from employing men, creating 30,000 low-paid jobs for women.
These limited measures have been hailed by the international media as great success stories promising women emancipation and empowerment. Such stories also ap-pear in official Saudi media in which gender inequality is blamed on the impact of the Saudi Wahhabi religious tradition.
The question why authoritarian states that deny their population political repre-sentation suddenly champion women’s causes may be puzzling. Like Zine El-Ab-din Ben Ali in Tunisia and Husni Mubarak in Egypt, King Abdullah is eager to pro-mote women’s rights, education and em-powerment because this is often a low-cost strategy yielding high profit.
Championing women’s causes brings international legitimacy. Global discourse on women’s empowerment, coupled with regular exposure of abuse, discrimination and injustice, embarrasses authoritarian states and their Western allies.
After the Arab Spring, the long-term banality of the West’s support for dictators in the region has been exposed. While the Saudi leadership has been shielded from open Western condemnation for its lack of democracy, many officials in Washington and Riyadh would like to see changes. Gen-der reform in particular is always appreci-ated. It does not immediately impact on the stability of authoritarian regimes nor undermine the security police state they create. In fact, gender reform projects a bright reformist image that conceals the excesses of authoritarian rule.
The move towards women’s empower-ment under King Abdullah has coincided with the Saudi regime facing internal secu-rity challenges. Since 2003, terrorism has shattered the myth that Saudi Arabia is a sea of tranquillity in the middle of a volatile Arab region. By championing women’s causes, the Saudi leadership exaggerates its difference from a radical alternative, name-ly violent Jihadis. Despite its regular abuse of human rights and enforcement of gen-der inequality embedded in its legislations, the state becomes the only alternative as a shield and promoter of women’s rights.Women, who are structurally excluded from political, religious and economic decision-making, have no option but to consider the authoritarian state their ally against the oppression of men.
The emerging state feminism is not unique to Saudi Arabia but a characteristic of all authoritarian states that reach out to women occupying a “minority” status, even though they may outnumber men and exceed them in educational achievement.
In this changed context, King Abdullah has shifted the legitimacy of the ruling fam-ily to a new level by seeking to feminise the masculine state. Women are needed as a group with which to fight the dissent of men and appease the West. The state co-opts women’s aspirations to achieve new local and external legitimacy.
Faced with women’s protests, the state channelled their activism towards state-controlled objectives. This culminated in giving women the right to vote in the fu-ture and the promise of access to state in-stitutions, measures announced during the Arab Spring.
Women’s causes do not directly chal-lenge authoritarian rule. When the state decided that its religious tradition had be-come a burden on state security, it cham-pioned women’s causes to help defeat those Islamists who challenge it.
If the authoritarian state benefits from championing women’s causes, why do women themselves look to authoritarian patriarchal states to achieve more rights and visibility? The fact is there is no con-sensus in Saudi society in favour of wom-en’s emancipation. Weak groups such as women often seek state intervention and protection to avoid collision with society.
By championing women’s causes, in the short term the Saudi state may have suc-ceeded in containing an imminent wom-en’s revolution. But in the long term, no doubt Saudi women like other women in the world will try to move beyond state-sponsored feminism and achieve their dream of becoming full citizens.
Like their sisters in Egypt and Tunisia, Saudi women will soon realise that gender equality and emancipation are limited un-der authoritarian rule.
Welcome to the personal website of Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed. I hope that you will find the information published here of interest. The views expressed are my personal views and do not represent any organisation.
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