Do authoritarian regimes in the Middle East even care about women?
It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon when forty-seven Saudi women gathered in the car park of a supermarket in Riyadh. After dismissing their private chauffeurs, these women got behind the wheels of their cars and drove, in an impassioned demonstration. Although there was no official law banning women from driving, they were inevitably refused driving licenses upon application. In the short time, they had that afternoon in November, they claimed the bone dry and dusty roads of Riyadh. Fawzia al-Bakr, an activist, and writer, smilingly recalls a startled Saudi man giving them a thumbs-up through the window of his car.
The year was 1990 and Saudi Arabia was in the midst of the Gulf War, with over 16,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel deployed there. Female soldiers from the U.S. drove cars throughout the country while some Saudi women looked on with envy. Despite a religious proclamation permitting the presence of Western forces in the country, the kingdom’s Islamic scholars, the ulema, were enraged by the American presence. Meanwhile, a small group of middle-class intellects was angry at the amount of control ulema had over day-to-day life in Saudi Arabia. This intelligentsia criticized the United States for its unabashed support of the government, which they viewed as corrupt, vile and complicit. Tensions were brewing when the forty-seven Saudi women decided not only to ignite the engines of their cars but also film themselves driving. Not too long after, they were stopped by the police and arrested. By the next morning, they were released. Pamphlets with their names were bandied around, describing them as secularist Americans, communists, or “advocates of vice and corruption on earth”. In addition to having their names tainted throughout the country, some of them were fired or suspended from their teaching positions.
Consequently, the regime informally prohibited driving, following a fatwa by the Grand Mufti declaring that women’s interaction with men could wreak havoc in the country. Throughout the years, brave activists – from Wajeha al-Huwaider and Souad al-Shammary to Manal al-Sharif and Lujain al-Hathloul – openly challenged the ban only to immediately face imprisonment. And yet, many of these women did not bat their eye when it came to changing the oppressive conditions they faced at home. They fought back. Following the 2011 uprisings across the Arab world, the ‘Women2Drive’ campaign was initiated, pushing women to request driving licenses and file lawsuits once the unavoidable rejection came in. Only last December, an extraordinary music video by the Saudi Arabian male artist Majed al-Esa jibed at the driving ban by showing Saudi women being driven around by a small boy.
Saudi women’s demands, however, do not begin or end with the driving ban. There are more detrimental and discriminatory issues at stake, particularly manifest in the kingdom’s rigid guardianship laws. These laws handcuff Saudi women to their male ‘guardians’ in issues pertaining to marriage, divorce, work, travel, and even healthcare. Seventy percent of women fully depend on their male guardians for financial support. A staggeringly high number of them also suffer from domestic violence. However, in April 2017, King Salman announced that government agencies should not reject women’s access to their services if they do not have a male guardian’s approval. This was in line with the regime’s infuriatingly slow but steady implementation of gender-related reforms in the past couple of years. For instance, thirty women were appointed as members of the Shura Council in 2013 and in 2015, women voted and ran as candidates in the municipal elections. The controversial crown prince, Mohamad bin Salman, has been at the forefront of many of these changes, particularly in his attempt to limit the control the religious police have over day-to-day affairs. Yet, when it came to the simple act of driving, the Saudi regime, encouraged by many ulema, remained adamant – until recently.
Last September, King Salman sent shockwaves throughout the world with a televised royal decree announcing that women would be able to obtain drivers’ licenses in less than a year from now. A committee of senior officials was given 30 days to prepare for the enactment of the decree. Saudi’s ambassador to the US also announced the decision in Washington D.C., noting that women did not require a guardian for the application.
Government officials, particularly bin Salman, who is said to be the driving force behind this decision, see this as potential leap forward for the economy during a worrying time of dropping oil prices. More women will join the labor force – particularly the private sector – and less money and time will be spent on drivers, many of whom are from foreign countries. This decision falls in line with bin Salman’s extensive attempts to reform the country’s oil dependence by 2030 and “Saudicize” its labor force, which is particularly worrying for many of its foreign workers who already suffer from inhumane discrimination in the kingdom. This is part and parcel of bin Salman’s new, bold strategy to restructure the economy of the country, appeal to the country’s youth and foreign tourists, and project himself as a so-called modern reformist. Not too long ago, he announced plans to obliterate extremism and moderate Islam instead, in addition to establishing a new megacity that will not consist of “anything traditional.”
Upon lifting the ban, the commission of Islamic clerics was quick to tweet that it is the “king who looks out for the interest of his people and his country in accordance with sharia law.” The tweet highlights the tense, confused dynamic that exists between Islamic clerics and the regime in the kingdom. Arguably this goes back to as early as the eighteen century, when Muhammad bin Saud, from the town of Dariya, aligned with the puritanical religious leader, Muhammad ben Abdel Wahab, to establish the Wahhabi religious-political movement. This fusion of politics and religion was also at the core of the formation of the Saudi state in 1932 when Abdel Aziz bin Saud consolidated his military campaigns in the country by spreading the Wahabi doctrine with the help of religious warriors. In her book Daring to Drive, Manal Al-Sharif assembles a genealogy of Saudi Arabia’s history of women’s oppression. She recalls the 1979 siege of Mecca, whereby fanatical insurgents led by Juhayman al-Otayby seized Masjid al-Haram in an attempt to overthrow the Al Saud family. Two weeks into the siege, with hundreds dead and injured, the House of Saud instigated more conservative and stern policies to please the clerics. Naturally, women were caught up in this battle of legitimacy.
This time around, the battle between the clerics and the government turned out to be in favor of women’s demands. Professors Aziza Youssef and Fawziah al-Bakr applauded this as a great improvement, and Manal Al Sharif tweeted, “#Women2Drive done, #IAmMyOwnGuadian in progress”. Without Saudi women activists, this would not have been possible. After decades of campaigning, getting arrested and jailed, and receiving lashing threats, one of the main demands of Saudi activists has been actualized. But, as stomach churning as this might sound, it is the regime that permitted this decision – not in the 1990s or in 2011, but today. So, why now?
Less than two weeks prior to this decision, at least sixteen people – including two women – were arrested for their alleged opposition to bin Salman’s new policies. Ben Hubbard from the NY Times cites Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who notes that these so-called dissenters were simply being punished for not actively denouncing Qatar. This severe and public clampdown evidences bin Salman’s desire to secure his power since he ousted his cousin, Mohamad bin Nayef, as the heir-to-be. Saudi Arabia’s recent tiff with Qatar, coupled with its brutal and highly unpopular intervention in Yemen has lost it a lot of credentials both in the kingdom and abroad. Lifting such a controversial ban – and appeasing both a large number of the population and the international community – in a critical political atmosphere is only telling of what bin Salman has next up his sleeve.
Lo and behold, within this week alone, over a dozen current and former ministers, eleven princes, and several businessmen have been detained upon order of the king. This came not too long after King Salman announced a new (and rather ironic) anti-corruption committee, presided by bin Salman. Many of the detainees have been tortured, and have been rushed to the hospital because of their wounds.
Bin Salman’s strategic decision to change the driving law – the most contentious and symbolic act of oppression Saudi women face – in light of such a crackdown is worrisome. Women’s rights are exploited for economic and political purposes, and become a means through which the regime is celebrated both domestically and internationally during murky times. By positing itself to be the guarantor of women’s rights, Saudi Arabia not only enhances its legitimacy but also maintains an iron grip over the channels for gender equality.
How do we celebrate these gender progressive reforms, but also put them into context? And what can the long history of state feminism in 20th century Middle East teach us?
Turkey is a good place to start.
Speaking in front of a large crowd in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Attaturk charismatically proclaimed that, “the reason for the lack of success in our society lies in the indifference towards our women.” Under his presidency, the government pursued ‘Westernized’ radical reforms aimed at modernizing the state. Consequently, women’s rights in 1920’s Turkey emerged as part of a top-bottom nationalistic policy imposed by Attaturk – very much like the relatively progressive women-related policies institutionalized by Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba. Sharia-based family laws were replaced with a new Civil and Penal Code in 1926 and the new Turkish family law was largely based on the Swiss civil code. An increased access to women’s education was coupled with an institutionalization of monogamy and their right to file for divorce. And in 1934, Turkey surpassed many other countries by enabling women to both vote and run for general elections in Turkey. Beyhan Hanum was even appointed as a judge a couple years before women were allowed to vote. Although the veil wasn’t outlawed – unlike Reza Shah’s declaration in neighboring Iran – women were heavily discouraged from wearing it. Ismet Inonu, who would come to replace Attaturk as President in 1938, has been documented saying, “The most paramount characteristic of our revolution is hidden in our attempt to endow a high status to women and to accept their rights… Whenever the Turkish revolution is mentioned it will be regarded as identical with the revolution of women’s emancipation.” This had reverberations not just in the Middle East, but in Europe as well. The cover of Fiona Montgomery’s book, Women, politics, and society in Britain c. 1770-1970, shows a couple of women protesting on the streets. One placard read, “ARE BRITISH WOMEN WORTH LESS THAN TURKISH WOMEN?”
Yet, the worth of women was still confined to a particular understanding of the woman as the mother: the mother of warriors, the mother of the nation. The concept of the nation becomes almost directly tied to gender, and creates a link between the nation and the mother, in the traditional sense of the word. Indeed, in the very same speech cited above, Attaturk mentioned that “the most important duty of women is motherhood.” The advancements of women were still limited to the notion of nationalistic sacrifice. The feminist activist, Sirin Tekeli, argues that the so-called Kemalist revolution did not shake the patriarchal roots in the country, but rather “reproduced them while modernizing them.” In such a context, women are reaffirmed but only within the confines of a particular nationalist rhetoric.
What happened in Turkey foreshadowed the rising trend of state feminism, whereby governments – whether Islamist, secular autocratic, or so-called Western – attempt to better their image, sustain their rule and improve their economic performance through systematically co-opting women rights. Legislative and executive reforms are initiated to change the status of women within the nation, but not to actually give women the freedom to make their own autonomous choices.
Indeed, fast-forward a couple of decades later, and Habib Bourguiba, largely influenced by Attaturk, would come to be known as the (oxymoronic) progressive dictator: the God-sent liberator of Tunisian women. Needless to say, Bourguiba’s legacy was complex and not least of it was his engagement with women’s rights. In an interview in 1965, he recalls his observations as a child. As the youngest in the family, he spent most of his time indoors with the women. Watching the injustices his mother, grandmother and sister faced “had a great impact” on him. For Bourguiba, Tunisia could not progress without women’s emancipation, which required a change of traditions and bad habits – henceforth termed “La feminisme Bourguibien.” Not too long after Tunisia’s independence, Bourguiba helped institutionalize the relatively progressive Code of Personal Status, which were successions of laws intended to improve the status of women particularly in areas of marriage and divorce. Women, for instance, were given free contraceptives. Abortion was legalized a couple years into his rule for women with over five children. By 1973, women were allowed to have abortions without their husband’s consent. Bourguiba, influenced by Tunisia’s French colonizers, banned so-called sectarian clothes – such as the hijab – in public institutions, disturbingly referring to the hijab as “odious” on national television. This was in direct contrast to other countries in the Arab world, most of which relied almost solely on Islamic family law. Secular laws would come to replace the Shari’a-based ones to encourage women’s participation in the country’s developmental process. While it is true that Tunisian women have enjoyed more political and social rights than their counterparts in the region, women continued to suffer from various forms of violence in both the public and private sphere. More dangerously, the dependency on a leader, whether it was Attaturk or Bourguiba or Ben Ali, for rights does little to eradicate patriarchy, particularly when women’s organizations – and political parties, for that matter – are shunned in favor of the incumbent regime’s particular version of feminism. Perhaps just as dangerous is the trend of making authoritarian leaders’ wives beacons of independence and strength. Leila Ben Ali, for instance, was portrayed as the prototypical empowered Tunisian women: president of the Arab Woman Organization, the chair and founder of different charities and associations, and a recipient of multiple awards for her humanitarian work. A closer look portrays Leila Ben Ali – now wanted by the Interpol for corruption and money laundering – as having embezzled state money to live a luxurious life, while the rest of the population suffered from rising economic inequality and decreasing standards of living. In Egypt as well, Anwar Sadat’s wife, Jihan, became a model for Arab women particularly with her attempt to change laws pertaining to divorce – dubbed as the Jihan Law. She was the founder of the Arab-African Women’s League and was the head of the Egyptian delegation to the UN International Women’s Conferences in more than one country. Yet, she has blatantly announced her support for Sisi, whom she deems as a respectable hero in command of one of the most powerful armies in the Middle East. In Lebanon, women’s entry into public offices remains limited because of sectarian and patriarchal barriers that make it near impossible. The women that are consequently elected to parliament are more often than not connected to men with political capital. Writing in 1998, Kirsten Schulze notes that the women in Lebanon’s parliament – Bahia Hariri, Maha Khouri, and Nayla Mouawad – were “an extension of the politics of a male family member.” Others followed them in 2005, when Solange Gemayel, the wife of assassinated president Bachir Gemayel, and Sitrida Geagea, the wife of Samir Geagea who was in jail at the time, was elected. The problem with this is not that these women are in power but rather how and why they received seats and the politics they support.
This shuns the plethora of women-led grassroots movements and human rights organizations that challenge the status quo, situating gender progress within the control of the regime.
In Tunisia, feminist movements, such as the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, were not taken as seriously as they should have because they were perceived as ill-intentioned opponents to The National Union of Tunisian Women, which was backed by the state’s ruling party, the Neo Destour. Women like Radhia Nasraoui, a human rights lawyer, endured various forms of harassment when they refused to align their activism with that of the state’s. Unsurprisingly, the same happened in many other countries: in Turkey, the Women's Federation was dissolved in 1935, in Iraq, the communist-led Iraqi Women’s League was prohibited in favor of the Ba’thi General Federation of Iraqi Women, and in Egypt, Nasser banned all feminist organizations. Although Saudi Arabia passed a law that allowed non-charity NGOs to operate, human rights organizations that go against the state’s vision can be abolished. NGOs can also only operate within the country and receive their funding from the state, as a means of ensuring that they remain under the regime’s control.
Wealthy states can more easily micromanage all social and political structures. Like Saudi Arabia, Iraq’s oil bolstered its capacities. Deniz Kandiyoti, in her book Women, Islam and the State, argues that women have been crucial for state construction in Ba’th controlled Iraq for two reasons: labor and shifting allegiances towards the state. Consequently, she illustrates how a variety of programmes, focused on women, resocialized them into “state-controlled agencies”. Using statistics, Kandiyoti maps the changes women experienced in terms of work and education. She notes that “[p]rior to the Ba’th Revolution, of the almost 4 million females in the population only 23000 had achieved secondary certificates or their equivalents; 8000 college or institute certificates; 200 graduate degrees or diplomas; and 90 doctorates. A decade after the fascist and repressive Ba’th take-over, females constituted 43% of the children in primary schools, 30 percent of those in intermediate and preparatory schools, 45 percent of university students, 25 percent of those in vocational schools. In the decade of the 1970s, female enrolment [increased by] 310 percent.” In addition to extended maternity leaves, working women were provided with free childcare, free transportation, and highly subsidized medical care. Peasant women were taught how to read, and literacy classes were initiated for women from all ages. A government decree in 1974 announced that men and women should be inevitably employed after graduation from university. As can be expected from an authoritarian dictatorship, this soon changed when it was no longer in the regime’s interest. During the Iraq-Iran war, the regime glorified masculinity and violence and projected women as mothers who had to procreate young male fighters. The second war, initiated by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, further solidified the changing nature of women. They went from being highly employed, to being pushed back into their homes. The rising oil prices gave the economy a boost, and as Nadje el-Ali and Nicola Pratt discuss in their book What Kind of Liberation?: Women and the Occupation of Iraq, the government was “less motivated by egalitarian principles than by pragmatic economic calculations.”
There are undoubtedly huge differences between the monarchic Saudi Arabia and the republics of Egypt, Iraq or Tunisia, particularly because the kingdom did not go through the processes of anticolonial nationalism that enabled women to participate in politics at an earlier stage. But in both cases, what is clear is that women are exploited for the benefit of the nation, its allegiances, and its prestige. This has been eloquently pointed out by Saudi scholar Madawi Al-Rasheed in her book A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics and Religion in Saudi Arabia. She argues that – whether in Egypt or Saudi Arabia – “women are turned into symbols, representing anything but themselves.” Al-Rasheed illustrates how King ‘Abdallah’s rule – coinciding with the epoch of neoliberalism – pushes for a limited provision of women’s rights as a means of state feminism. When the decision to lift the ban came out, Al-Rasheed was quick to tweet that “By allowing women to drive, Saudi regime wants to divert attention from detaining more than 40 people since 9 Sept.”
This is not to say that bin Salman’s gender-related reforms aren’t a cause for celebration. We can claim a victory, but also shift the discourse concerning the motives behind it. In her interviews with politically active Iraqi women, Nadje el Ali observes that while many acknowledged the gender progressive policies during the Ba’thist era, they were extremely concerned with the extensive repression and authoritarianism under Saddam Hussein.
The Saudi state is a patriarchal and highly oppressive monarchy, and bin Salman’s power mongering reforms need not distract us from that reality. As long as there are no efforts to democratize and decentralize the state, and provide full autonomy to independent grassroots campaigns and NGOs, then women’s empowerment will be dependent on the state, remaining a political tool for nationalistic and economic purposes.