The West Is Kidding Itself About Women’s Freedom in Saudi Arabia

Megan K. Stack, a contributing Opinion writer and fellow at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, has been a correspondent in China, Russia, Egypt, Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico and Texas. 

“Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia is officially back in good standing, having spent his summer putting the finishing touches on a wildly successful reputation rehabilitation. The kingdom’s de facto ruler bumped fists with President Biden, who not long ago accused him of heading a “pariah” state; basked in the sycophantic praise of Greek officials in the birthplace of Western democracy; and feasted at the Élysée Palace with President Emmanuel Macron.

Foreign officials sometimes mention the grisly murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi or Saudi atrocities in Yemen, but these fleeting condemnations have started to feel like a rote obligation hastily done so that everyone can get back to angling for oil. With Russia’s war in Ukraine straining global energy markets, morals are a luxury the West can no longer afford, or so they think. But, of course, they can’t say that.

What they say instead is that the mercurial figure known as M.B.S. has brought social and economic progress to Saudi Arabia. True, they concede, he has rounded up rivals, jailed clerics and cracked down on dissent. But with promises of a “moderate” Islam, he has quickly shoved the austere kingdom into a brave new age featuring Formula One racing, Justin Bieber and Mariah Carey concerts, and cinemas and restaurants where men and women mingle. I repeat: men and women. For this, without fail, you will hear: M.B.S. has liberated Saudi women, allowing them to drive and loosening the state-enforced control by their male guardians.

On closer inspection, however, the emancipation of women is not all it seems.

First, it’s hard to discuss women’s freedom while Saudi Arabia prosecutes women (and men) as terrorists for so much as dabbling in politics. Just last week, Salma al-Shehab, a Ph.D. student and mother of two, was sentenced to 34 years in prison for using her Twitter account in support of dissidents.

But even the mundane freedoms of women’s lives remain straitened. M.B.S. indeed abolished the ban on women driving, which had always stood out as an outlandish source of international scorn. He also removed some of the legal enforcements of the dreaded guardianship system, which consigned every Saudi woman to the near total control of a male family member. More women are believed to have entered thework force now that the government allows them to move around more easily. M.B.S. defanged the notorious religious police and ended the mandatory gender segregation they imposed on every public space.

These are real, laudable changes. The complicating question is, who can take advantage of them?

The recent reforms mean that if a woman has been born or married into a clan of freethinking men willing to let her do things, the state will not interfere. But for the many Saudi women who lack a benevolent male guardian, there is no remedy. If, for example, a woman’s husband or father doesn’t think she should get her driving license, she is still compelled to obey his dictate.

In other words, according to Saudi legal experts I consulted, the changes are crafted to avoid discomfiting men: The government will no longer legally force men to keep the women of their household under heightened control — but it won’t force men to emancipate women, either.

“For women who are unfortunate, who do not have the support of their guardians, they do not have the opportunity to enjoy the openings in society,” explained Hala Aldosari, a Saudi scholar and rights activist. “I’d say this is the majority of women in Saudi Arabia, who live in more conservative families.”

“Reforms are done for certain types of people,” she added. “They are not done for all kinds of women.”

M.B.S. has boasted extravagantly that his new personal status law is a “major qualitative leap” in women’s rights.

I read the law, which appeared quietly on a Saudi government website in Arabic without official translation. I had some idea what I’d find, having heard mutterings from Saudi women and human rights activists, but I was still taken aback by how starkly it fell short of the rhetoric surrounding M.B.S.’s purported social transformation.

Saudi women still need permission from a male guardian to marry. True, it forbids guardians to force their charges to marry against their will. But the paternalistic role of the male guardian is fully encoded in the law — with control over women passing among fathers, husbands, uncles, brothers and even sons in a prescribed order of importance — and since a marriage agreement involves the “offer of the guardian and the acceptance of the husband,” a guardian could likely prevent a woman from marrying according to her desire. (I should point out, in the interest of fairness, that despite all of this, Saudi Arabia’s abortion laws are more liberal than those of some U.S. states, allowing for pregnancy termination when the mother’s mental or physical health is threatened.)

Once married, a Saudi woman must obey her husband. She may not “withhold herself” from her husband. She must breastfeed her children; this is a legal obligation owed to her husband. As is common in other Muslim countries, no Muslim woman may marry a non-Muslim, and widows, compared with widowers, are entitled to a smaller share of the dead spouse’s estate.

And so it is: freedom at the whim of a father, liberation at the pleasure of the prince.

The United States has never really found — and perhaps never sincerely sought — an effective way to coherently, consistently support human rights abroad, particularly in the Middle East. Even before Sept. 11, successive administrations paid lip service to issues like political repression, elections and, perhaps most of all, women’s rights, but these ad hoc moments of pressure were rendered hypocritical against the backdrop of bloodshed and destabilization wrought by U.S. wars and tended to wither away when they clashed with security or economic priorities.

Today, in the wake of the crushed uprisings of the Arab Spring and a Trump administration that shattered the American tradition of at least pretending to care about human rights, a particular bleakness has taken hold. From Egypt to the Palestinian territories to Saudi Arabia, the United States is all pragmatism, undeterred by hunger-striking political prisoners or slain U.S. journalists. The question, perhaps, is how to explain ourselves at home.

That’s where women’s rights come in. The second-class citizenship accorded to women in Saudi Arabia had long been a complicating source of embarrassment and criticism in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. American politicians and companies were routinely called out for overlooking, criticizing too mildly or even (in the case of restaurants and hotel chains) enforcing laws that deprived women of fundamental rights to occupy public spaces, marry or move around freely. At the same time, when U.S. diplomats came out with milquetoast condemnations or snubs, the kingdom was humiliated and angered. M.B.S., it seems, was eager to excise this awkwardness.

“He wants to be the great reformer in the eyes of the West, to give the appearance of benevolence and liberty,” said Khaled Abou El Fadl, a distinguished professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a vigorous critic of the ultraconservative Wahhabism dominant in Saudi Arabia. “And we all look the other way so our conscience is not too bothered.”

The pictures we see are mesmerizing. It is undeniably thrilling to glimpse women cruising King Fahd Road or mingling at the King Abdulaziz racetrack. Foreign reporters paint vivid tableaus of wrestling and raves.

But, on closer look, each bit of progress came ominously layered with warning messages unmistakable to a Saudi audience.

Just as the kingdom announced that women could drive, for example, the women who’d campaigned tirelessly and publicly for precisely this right were arrested and locked away. The family of one of the most prominent driving activists, Loujain al-Hathloul, said publicly that she was tortured and sexually harassed while in custody; human rights investigators say others were also abused. Upon release, the women and even their family members were subjected to travel bans, forbidden to leave Saudi Arabia or to speak publicly about politics.

There’s a harsh logic to this seeming incongruity: M.B.S. struck out against two embarrassing political elements — the driving ban and the women who dared to protest against the ruling family.

“He fears women having too much power,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, a Saudi legal scholar and the director of research at Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, a human rights organization that documented the arrests of the driving activists through interviews and court records. “At the same time, he wants to use this banner of quote-unquote empowering women.”

The story of Ms. al-Hathloul, who was released last year, touches on another contradiction in Saudi Arabia’s nominal pursuit of women’s equality: its ambassadors. The kingdom first appointed a woman to the role of ambassador in 2019, when Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan was dispatched to Washington. Soon a second woman, Amal al-Moallimi, whose brother is Saudi Arabia’s longtime delegate to the United Nations, was appointed ambassador to Norway.

Ms. al-Moallimi had met Ms. al-Hathloul. She was part of a delegation from the Saudi government’s Human Rights Commission that visited the driving activist while she was being held incommunicado. Ms. al-Hathloul told Ms. al-Moallimi that she had been electrocuted, sexually assaulted and threatened with death during her detention, and she asked for protection, according to a report assembled by DAWN.

But Ms. al-Moallimi, the organization charges, “buried” the complaint, failing to investigate or take action. As ambassador, she has enthusiastically described the great strides being made by Saudi women. (I emailed the Saudi Foreign Ministry requesting an interview with Ms. al-Moallimi and a response to DAWN’s report but received no reply.)

As for the ambassador to the United States, she, too, has a peculiar history when it comes to sisterly solidarity. She once coined a hashtag, #i_choose_to_stay, that was understood as a reprimand aimed at desperate Saudi women trying to escape harsh restrictions at home by fleeing abroad. One such woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, made it to Manila in 2017, only be to chased down and dragged onto a Riyadh-bound airplane by male family members. She has never been heard from publicly again. (A spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to questions I posed.)

Defenders of M.B.S. point out that he’s wildly popular among Saudis. I can easily believe that he is well liked by some of his subjects, like secular-leaning youth.

Still, I can’t help but suspect that a real Saudi Arabia, with varied communities occupied by flesh and blood human beings, is obscured by an avalanche of glossy propaganda.

Yasmine Farouk, a scholar who has extensively researched Saudi Arabia for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me that some of the crown prince’s most popular initiatives have garnered little international attention. For example, she said, people are pleased that he’s streamlined government bureaucracy into user-friendly online platforms. The downside, she immediately added, was that everyone’s data would now be easily gathered into the clutches of the surveillance state.

While the kingdom has always been opaque, these days, a kind of eerie silence has taken hold. It is no longer the slightly messy political culture I used to cover in the early years of the Iraq war, when gadflies and critics like Mr. Khashoggi buzzed around the edges and dissenting members of the royal family gossiped over coffee. All those people have shut up or gone to ground. I can’t even locate some of the sources I used to speak with.

“It is very hard to access the Saudi grass roots and society to understand the depth and reality of what’s he doing,” Ms. Farouk said. “It makes the picture really incomplete. They arrest people for talking and, also, there’s a lot of self-censorship. Even me, I don’t contact some people anymore because I’m worried to put them in harm’s way.”

In his forthcoming memoir, Jared Kushner writes that he befriended the crown prince because “the reforms that M.B.S. was implementing were having a positive impact on millions of people in the kingdom — especially women.” It is a natural thing to highlight, the least embarrassing spin one can put on the relationship with M.B.S.”

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