This article was written as a response to a presentation held at the Qatar University on Feminism in Saudi Arabia. The talk was presented by the leading Saudi feminist, Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi. Al-Fassi is currently an Associate Professor in the History Department of the King Saud University, Riyadh, and a Visiting Professor at the International Affairs Department at Qatar University, Doha. She is a prominent figure in women’s rights activism in Saudi Arabia and internationally.
A historic election has just swept through Saudi Arabia. The landmark event saw women run as candidates and place votes in municipal elections for the first time in the nation’s conservative history. Approximately 130 000 women cast votes in the election in comparison to an estimated 1.35 million men. In this election, over 900 female candidates competed against nearly 5000 male candidates for roughly 2100 seats on Saudi Arabia’s municipal councils. Women gained political influence by securing 20 seats across the country. This is nothing short of significant. Female determinacy in this recent case to challenge their inferior rights signifies a small step in a long journey to thwart the indoctrinated submissiveness of women in society. However, despite Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal two-tiered social system, the nation does not need feminism.
In Western discourse Saudi Arabia is synonymous with gender inequality. Western media consistently condemns the subjugation of women and their lack of basic rights, advocating that the nation adopts more feminist ideals. Despite this, the Western construct of feminism is not adaptable to Saudi Arabia. The feminist narrative in the Gulf state highlights the intrinsic problem of labelling a political movement that has Western roots. Whilst the feminist phenomenon has irrevocably altered the socio-politico fabric of the West, it carries negative connotations in Saudi Arabia. It is not discussed in the context of its primal value as a rights movement, but rather, deplored for its perceived social consequences. As Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi, a prominent women’s rights activist from Saudi Arabia, avers, the Western construct of feminism is fatal to social, cultural and political progression in Saudi Arabia.
Resistance to the changing role of women in society can be traced to their cultural purpose. In Saudi Arabia, females are the bulwark of Saudi national identity. They are the guardians of Saudi Arabia’s international status as a conservative Islamic nation. The religious identity of women within the Gulf nation is hence intrinsic to its conservative image. As al-Fassi suggests, female empowerment in Saudi Arabia therefore must come through Islam. A shift in religious perspective needs to be considered in order to reassess the gender inequality in the nation.
Contrary to popular belief, the subordination of women is not inherent in Islam. Instead, the current subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia is a reflection of the renaissance of Islamic conservatism and the opposition of certain Qur’anic hermeneutics to modernity. Islam, like all other faiths, is interpretive. Conversely, the Western definition and ideal of ‘feminism’ is a fundamentally foreign concept in Islamic societies. This is not because Islam cannot accommodate for gender equality, but rather, because feminism as it is discussed in the West emerged from a different social fabric.
Despite the complex and multifaceted issue of female subordination in Saudi Arabia, in Western media the car has remained symbolic in Saudi women’s plight for equality. The denial of a woman’s right to drive continues to decay society, as al-Fassi fervently believes. It drains female dignity and encumbers the economic apparatus of the state and the economic opportunities of the individual. In Saudi Arabia men are burdened with the mobilisation of women. This results in a stagnating economy and non-productive society in order to safeguard an ideal of female inferiority. The government imports labour to sustain the mobilisation of its own people. Still, there has never been, nor is there now, a law that explicitly denies women the right to drive in Saudi Arabia.
Change is nevertheless inevitable. The tides of feminism and gender equality have slowly ebbed towards Saudi Arabia. Social media can be held partly responsible for new dialogue regarding women’s rights. However, it is not the sole source of new ideology. Saudi Arabia has accrued other means of international discourse entering the country. The Hajj, also known as the pilgrimage to Mecca, sees over one million Muslim tourists entering Saudi Arabia each year for the accomplishment of one of the five pillars of Islam. These Muslims come from a multitude of cultural and political backgrounds. The exportation of education in Saudi Arabia will also play a role in shaping modern society. Since 2006 the Saudi government launched an extensive scholarship program, which now sees over 200 000 students annually being sent overseas to complete studies under state-sponsored programs. It is expected that these students’ foreign experiences will add to the conversation about gender equality.
The proliferation of patriarchy in Saudi Arabia has engendered a two-tiered social system. Considerable change within the nation is required to break down the divide between the status and rights of both genders. In this year’s elections women have made progress in the political and social spheres to eradicate gender divisions. These women advocate for social awareness and a revision of the status of women. Saudi Arabia needs more of these actively engaged women who advocate for gender equality, however, the country does not need women who prescribe to the Western philosophy of feminism.
Sarah Barrie is currently undertaking a combined Bachelor’s Degree at the Australian National University in Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies and Laws (Honours), majoring in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies.
Image Credit: Tribes of the World (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons).