The slow march of progress towards Women's Rights
Saudi Arabia – one of the Middle East’s most powerful players and strong candidate for #1 global human rights abuser – has gotten a lot of attention as of late. Saudi women have recently won the right to drive, and the nation’s first legislation against workplace harassment has been set in place. The kingdom has also allowed women to vote in certain local elections and is dedicated to bringing more women into the workplace. At the surface level, all of these steps are important markers of progress for the world’s most openly patriarchal nation. How sincere are these changes? It’s worth taking a careful look before buying the line about the Saudi government being open for change.
First, look at the present situation of women in Saudi Arabia. Women aren’t considered legal persons in the same way as men. The laws around this are known as “guardianship” laws and mean that women need permission from a designated male, be it their husband or a family member, for most major decisions. These include choices like getting a job, opening a bank account, going to school and getting married. Marriage laws around property privilege men as well. Even though women can now drive in theory, actually having a car is still extremely restricted. The government also requires women to get permission from their guardian in court before they can take advantage of this right. Furthermore, women were already allowed to drive in several rural provinces, so this new edict is not as far of a leap as it seems. Even though the newly established rights are a positive, they are superficial. Saudi women’s activist Hala Al-Dosari very bluntly stated in an interview with the Atlantic Magazine that the reform program was designed not to conflict with the very powerful and foundational structure of patriarchy in Saudi society, but instead to make an international splash.
This choice could be a distraction to keep Western public attention off Saudi Arabia’s unique talent for mixing incompetence and genocide. Right now, the Saudi regime has – at the urging of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the reformer responsible for the new driving law – entangled itself in the civil war of its neighbour Yemen. After the well-armed Houthi militia chased Yemen’s highly unpopular President Hadi out of office, the Saudis began a horrific bombing campaign and invasion aimed at restoring the President to power. This war effort has resulted in air strikes against marketplaces, hospitals, protests and even a funeral where almost 500 civilians were killed. The Saudi air force has also been making heavy use of “triple tap” airstrikes, in which they launch a first airstrike against civilians, a second to kill the injured or those fleeing the initial blast and a third to finish off the medics and firefighters who show up to help the victims. The Saudis have also launched air attacks against boats full of refugees and medical supplies, blocked UN aid and used illegal cluster bombs that drop hundreds of grenades and destroyed the port of Hodeidah where almost all the country’s food comes through. Yemen is now home to a highly active Al-Qaeda militia which has taken advantage of the chaos. Tens of thousands of civilians are dead, and the UN estimates that if things continue to worsen, there may be cholera, famine and water shortages that kill many more. The Saudi military campaign is all but genocidal, but is completely incompetent. They failed to prevent the Houthis from keeping a firm grip on the country, launching North Korean-made long-range missiles at the Saudi capital, assassinating Saudi commanders and regularly raiding across the Saudi border. This mass slaughter is supported by the United States and armed by Canada. Anything that Saudi Arabia (and in particular Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman) can do to take the eyes of the world off this bloodbath would give it breathing room.
Finally, there’s a lack of basic strength behind the reforms. This change has clearly been built on the patient and tireless work of fearless Saudi women, but the Saudi regime has taken great pains to ensure that their work is not even mentioned. The new superficial reforms are being framed as an act of enlightened benevolence by the dictatorship. In reality it’s a distraction and if the Saudi regime ever finds itself challenged by a serious ultra-conservative movement, it will likely retract these new rights. Before 1979, Saudi women enjoyed a restrictive but still decent range of rights. It was only after anti-American Islamist students stormed the Grand Mosque of Mecca and proclaimed that they were starting a revolution that the Saudi regime cracked down. The revolution was crushed, but its aftermath was a period of extremely strong repression of women, the Shi’a minority and civil society that has lasted to present day. Although the religious establishment has been brought under state control for now, it’s not impossible that a similar event could provoke such a response again. When Saudi Arabia has to choose between the rights of its citizens and the support of the fundamentalists whose values its regime is based upon, it will choose the fundamentalists. The government has unfairly framed the reform as being its own initiative, which makes it simpler to cancel it.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s most brutal dictatorship. It is ruled by a nepotistic, corrupt and deeply stupid dynasty known for its use of slavery and profound cruelty. The regime’s existence is built on sexism, racism, and general atrocities. This is a country which beheaded a peaceful cleric who famously said that “the roar of the word”, not bullets, would free the people. His brother was beheaded for mentioning the death sentence, and two of his cousins for being related to him. This is the country which in 2011 sent tanks into Qatar to run over democracy protestors when the Qatari army refused. The same country that tortured two Pakistani transgendered teens to death. The Saudi secret police equates trade unions, atheism, and political parties of all types with terrorism. Jews, Christians, Shi’a Muslims, and even practitioners of tribal faiths among the tens of thousands of African and Indonesian “guest workers” (who are treated as slaves and worked to death) are imprisoned, harassed and sometimes executed. Even with these welcome surface-level changes, Saudi Arabia remains the most repulsive, brutal and senseless nation on the face of the Earth. It clings on to its pointless and bizarrely incompetent existence with torture, American supplies, and Canadian tanks. Saudi Arabia may have changed a bit for the better, but it’s still the world’s worst country and no amount of flashy reform will change this.