The New Saudi Arabia Is A Lot Like The Old Saudi Arabia When It Comes To Women

A dispute with Canada over jailed women activists pits Saudi feminists and allies around the world against the planet's most misogynistic government.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on March 20.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on March 20.

When Hala Al-Dosari told her father in 2013 that she planned to join the biggest-ever protests against the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, he told her she would need to use someone else’s car ― he was too old to collect theirs from the police station if she got arrested. She agreed, but warned him he might have to go to the station anyway to sign a form for her release. She guessed he would relent. “Of course I’m going to come,” he grudgingly told her.

Five years later, Saudi Arabia is still using its sprawling and well-funded government apparatus to enforce misogyny more harshly than any other internationally recognized regime. The driving ban is dead, but the legal code requiring more than 5 million adult Saudi women to seek a male guardian’s permission for almost any activity remains in place ― and in the last few months authorities have jailed some of the kingdom’s loudest advocates for gender equality. In a break from decades of quieter repression, Saudi leadership is making a big deal of the arrests at home, where the women activists are labeled traitors, and abroad: Since Sunday, it has ramped up a fight with Canada, one of the kingdom’s many Western partners, over Canadian criticism of the crackdown.

The unprecedented escalation is a choice, analysts and former U.S. officials familiar with Riyadh’s decision-making say. It seems quixotic ― but Al-Dosari sees a logic there. The kingdom’s sexism and its particular brand of authoritarianism go hand in hand. One cannot work without the other. And so as the country’s quasi-ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, signals that he is centralizing power, including by expressing Saudi nationalism in a form marketed as tough and masculine, it makes sense that he is doubling down on the gender divide ― and targeting women who doubt his promises of reform.

“To maintain the status quo, you need this system of hierarchy,” she said. That structure treats the head of a family ― always a man, even in situations of, say, a son with a widowed mother or a brother and his adult sisters ― as responsible for dealings with the autocratic state, entrusted with ensuring that those in his household follow rules both codified and unspoken.

“If everyone has equal rights, if men and women can do exactly the same things, it will be difficult to justify one having extra privileges,” Al-Dosari, a scholar and activist now in the U.S., continued. She and others pushing for equality say those calls aren’t subversive; they’re simply trying to better serve the Saudi people.

But worry about what change would mean for those in power is a key reason why the system of male guardianship and other restrictions on women remain in place, even as the prince lifts other strictures historically deemed sacrosanct in Saudi Arabia by ultraconservative clerics close to the ruling family. The prince is happy to end barriers on, say, going to the movies. His argument, devoured and repeated by his fans in the West, is that what’s holding Saudi Arabia back is its relationship with a certain brand of Islam, not limits on personal freedom ― so who needs their full rights, especially ones never enjoyed by women, anyway?

His vision of the kingdom’s future involves women becoming more free to the exact extent that serves his goal of expanding the Saudi economy beyond oil. And it makes up for the absence of the notorious religious police by giving government officials new ways to attack citizens’ private information, seize their property and trap them beyond the reach of relatives, lawyers or even well-connected friends.

A Saudi woman films and shows support to Samar Almogren (left), who drives her car through the streets of the Saudi capital R
A Saudi woman films and shows support to Samar Almogren (left), who drives her car through the streets of the Saudi capital Riyadh for the first time just after midnight, June 24, 2018, when the law allowing women to drive took effect.

Saudi women have struggled for equality for decades. Those who have led the country’s determined feminist movement, raising their voices and liaising with allies abroad to create the pressure that forced the prince to lift the driving ban, have often been those with supportive families, Al-Dosari said. Her father, she noted, was broad-minded because of his education. She also pointed to the progressive background of Aziza al-Yousef, an academic arrested in May. And there’s Samar Badawi, one of the two activists whose July arrests Canada commented on. She used to be married to a human rights lawyer and has a brother who publicly promotes gender equality. (Both men are now also in Saudi prisons.)

For others, obtaining permission to speak out can involve a major battle or simply be impossible because of family opinions or fear of state retribution, the activist told HuffPost. “I really honor and respect those women because they put themselves in inconvenience,” she said. “But then people see how resilient and how passionate you are.”

Outsiders trying to help Saudi women win a fair shake ― not as part of international conspiracies like those the kingdom is now railing about, but because of their own moral convictions and often a concern for the kingdom’s future stability ― see that bind as a central problem.

Equal treatment under the law would be truly transformative, according to Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, a State Department veteran who in 2002 became the first woman ever to head up a diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia.  

Saudi commentators have a point in saying, as they do now during the fight with Canada, that misogyny is hardly unique to the kingdom.

In other nations, however, when women seek recourse from abuse or discrimination, “the difference is they could choose to do it on their own without having a male somewhere say yes,” said Abercrombie-Winstanley, who later served as ambassador to Malta before quitting the agency last year. In the kingdom, justice is nearly impossible without “a benevolent male somewhere,” she added.

Western governments that deal closely with the Saudis are by now well aware of how careful they must be in calibrating their support for human rights. “The bottom line was not make it worse,” Abercrombie-Winstanley said. But they saw success stories ― she recalled the time that U.S. diplomats convened a meeting of scores of teachers and administrators from across the country, many of them women, who were working on special education with American help. Such mixing of men and women would have been illegal in public at the time. “Everyone left at 2:30 in the morning,” the former ambassador said.

The key thing was that suddenly women were meeting others they had only ever heard of, forging relationships and whisper networks they might use in the future to help women in need or achieve shared, small-scale goals ― being empowered individuals, not subsidiaries of family units cowed by the state.

Foreign critics of the kingdom’s repression have sought change for years. Sometimes the mere fact of who they are makes their comments especially striking and highlights how unique Saudi state sexism is, as was the case with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and previously Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström. They’re most powerful when, as Freeland did, they acknowledge Saudis’ own movements, showing that they’re not exporting a foreign model but a baseline of respect and dignity.

For that to work means sometimes being outspoken; even as the new Saudi leadership signals its distaste for public criticism, it’s done little to show that private urging, on issues ranging from human rights to the devastating Western-backed war in Yemen, works.

“When we speak, we publicly reach civil society and citizens, we show them where we stand. … We care about the people in Saudi and we feel their pain and we wish for them to be able to express themselves,” said Marietje Schaake, an influential Dutch lawmaker in the European Parliament who rallied support for an official European Union endorsement of the Canadian position. (On Saturday, the EU said it had contacted the Saudis to seek information about the detainees Canada commented on and to emphasize the importance of human rights defenders.)

For female Saudis considering the way the situation is developing, the public attention might be worth the risk of stoking nationalist (and male) anger. If nothing else, it at least highlights a disconnect with the message of Saudi progress that’s been spread around the world and shows there are some limits for the leadership.

“The state has already rounded up leaders in business and media with little to no cost,” Al-Dosari said, referring to a dramatic campaign of arrests last fall that was largely met with crickets in the West. As the authorities mull future clampdowns, “it makes a difference if there’s little or no cost for rounding up women who hold the same views the government is now promoting.”

This story has been updated to note the EU’s latest contact with the Saudis.