Last month, Saudi Arabia announced that it would allow women to obtain driving licenses, under a royal decree to take effect in June 2018. The Gulf kingdom was the only country in the world that prohibited women from driving. The decision to lift the ban was met with celebration both within Saudi Arabia and around the world.
It was, undoubtedly, a moment of victory for the brave women who campaigned for over a decade against enormous odds. The campaign came to international prominence in 2011, when Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif posted a YouTube video of herself driving. It went viral and she was promptly arrested. She became the face of the anti-driving ban movement, hailed in the international media as the “Saudi Rosa Parks”.
Yet some Saudi feminists reject this equation of their activism with Western civil rights movements. The US-based Saudi writer Farah Al-Sweel wrote in 2015 that “a revolution inspired solely by Anglophone feminism, whether championed by a Muslim woman or otherwise, is not a sisterhood: it is an exclusionary mission bordering on neo-colonialism”.
What is behind this view? Over the years numerous academics, journalists and campaigners have highlighted the way in which women’s rights become weaponised in the battle between the West and the Islamic world, a symbol of the West’s superiority. The best known example of this was George Bush’s frequent citing of the plight of women in Afghanistan to justify the 2001 invasion; with little regard for actually improving women’s lives.
This crude binary – the idea that the West treats women well and the East treats women badly – can actually be utilised by the very regimes that oppress women. After the news about the driving ban, the writer Madawi Al-Rasheed urged caution in the Guardian: “Today’s authoritarian regimes will win extra praise when they appear to be liberating Muslim women from the oppression of Islam. Saudi Arabia is no exception. Here, Muslim women are depicted either as survivors of their patriarchal religion or as heroes who are challenging such a dominant and primitive culture… Dictators conveniently depict themselves as liberators of these downtrodden women while society is shown to be the oppressor. In particular, in recent times, Islam and sharia law are portrayed as the cause of women’s suffering.”
This is a crucial point, as many feminists in Saudi Arabia see themselves not fighting against Islam, but working firmly within an Islamic tradition. In the West, the whole idea of Islamic feminism is often seen as a contradiction in terms, given that Islam is framed as inherently anti-woman. But it has a long and illustrious history, with female Muslim scholars, for instance, pushing back against patriarchal interpretations of religion.
In the West, the whole idea of Islamic feminism is often seen as a contradiction in terms, given that Islam is framed as inherently anti-woman. But it has a long and illustrious history
One example of these different frameworks in action might be the Western tendency to see Saudi Arabia’s strict dress codes for women as inherently oppressive. Yet many Saudi feminists, such as the prominent activist Samar Badawi, voluntarily wear the abaya – a long, loose over-garment. (Although others, including Manal al-Sharif who posted the viral driving video, reject some of these Saudi strictures on dress).
In addition to the driving ban, another change happened recently in Saudi Arabia that was not so widely reported on: a historic decision to allow Saudi women to issue fatwas, or religious edicts. This gives women an unprecedented level of religious authority in the kingdom and could open the door for improvement on the aspects of women’s oppression that are dictated by religious law. (Although, given the repressive nature of the Saudi regime, they are likely to appoint women who are sympathetic to their rule).
Women in Saudi are often presented as living in a state of semi-medieval misery – and of course, they do face serious restrictions and oppression. Yet they are also steadily increasing their attendance at university and their presence in the workplace. This is happening because women are pushing for change within the structures of the society that is familiar to them.
Of course, these changes are still subject to the biggest restriction that remains on women. This is not the driving ban but the country’s system of male guardianship, which means that in the eyes of the law a woman is always a minor. A male guardian, typically their fathers, husbands, or brothers, have the authority to make decisions on their behalf. So a woman cannot work without her husband or father’s permission – or even make decisions about medical treatment. Human Rights Watch said last year that this is “the most significant impediment to realising women's rights in the country”. A committed group of activists are challenging these rules, too. Maryam al-Otaibi is one of the best known: she has done jail time for moving city without her father’s permission.
The framing and exercise of Saudi feminism is so different to Western feminism – with its emphasis on abortion rights, the pay gap, and interpersonal relationships – that it is easy to see why some feel frustrated at lazy comparisons. We should support Saudi women, many of whom take enormous risks for freedoms we take for granted, while acknowledging that their struggle looks entirely different to ours.