Women’s activism in Saudi Arabia
Table of Contents
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy and theocracy based on Islamic law located on the Arabian Peninsula. The World Economic Forum has ranked Saudi Arabia as 131 out of 135 countries in their Global Gender Gap Index | World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index retrieved 4 May 2013 with a score of zero for the category of female political empowerment. The country is highly criticized when it comes to human rights and personal liberties. Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world that has yet to accept the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. | Human Rights Library: Ratification of International Human Rights Treaties – Saudi Kingdom
Many equate the situation of women in Saudi Arabia to that of an apartheid Where apartheid is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds other than race such as gender.” Handrahan LM (Spring 2001). “Gender Apartheid and Cultural Absolution: Saudi Arabia and the International Criminal Court”. Human Rights Tribune’ (Human Rights Internet) where women are continually demoted to the status of a minor lacking rights and freedoms. However, women within the society have been protesting and speaking out against the societal norms, disempowerment of women and gender inequality. This article features some examples of women’s activism in the country.
Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia
The Association works to gain political rights and independence for women. The Association’s first campaign concerned the right of women to drive. In September 2007, they amassed 1,1000 signatures for a petition that was ultimately ignored by King Abdullah 2008 Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia.United States State Department. 25 February 2009. Archived from the original on 23 May 2011. Retrieved 4 May 2013 .In 2008, they launched another campaign against the oppression of women called “No to the Oppression of Women.” This campaign aimed to give women and victims in the society a voice through personal stories and recordings put on YouTube.
According to Human Rights Watch , in December 2008 the Association received a warning against holding any further demonstrations. Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia United States Department of State. 25 February 2009. Retrieved 10 May 2013
Founder of the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudia Arabia, Wajeha al-Huwaider is a female activist and writer. al-Huwaider wrote for the Arabic language daily Al-Watan and the English language daily Arab News until she was banned from publishing in Saudi Arabia in 2003. Dankowitz, A. | Saudi Writer and Journalist Wajeha Al-Huwaider Fights for Women’s Rights Middle East Media Research Institute 28 December 2006. Retrieved 4 May 2013 She received a Masters Degree in Reading Management from George Washington University. She is a well known voice for the women’s activist movement in Saudi Arabia.
al-Huwaider was arrested in 2006 for a public protest demanding rights for women on the day celebrating the first anniversary of King Abdullah. She was involved in the driving campaigns of 2008 and 2011. She was also almost arrested as she attempted to cross the border of Bahrain without a male guardian in 2009 demanding freedom of travel. Saudi woman activist demands right to travel CNN News, 10 July 2009. Retrieved 5 May 2013 She is a strong and outspoken activist working to enfranchise women in the country. She works to engage other women activists and to publicize the situation and struggles of women.
- “And you, Saudi women: What are you waiting for?… You do not hesitate at all to help and support others – and the proof of this is what you did for Lebanon . But you hesitate greatly to help yourselves… I would like to understand why you hesitate to initiate the demand for your rights. Is it because there are no statistics that reveal the miserable situation of many Saudi women? Knock on the doors of the courthouses, and you will know the magnitude of this catastrophe. Is it because the blood of the Saudi woman who is a victim of violence flows in complete silence, so that no one pays attention? Or is it because the lives of the Saudi women are dirt cheap, and so they breathe their last without anyone noticing?… I do not know why you wait, or how long you will wait.”Dankowitz, A. | Saudi Writer and Journalist Wajeha Al-Huwaider Fights for Women’s Rights Middle East Media Research Institute 28 December 2006. Retrieved 4 May 2013
al-Huwaider on The Right to Drive
al-Huwaider said of the situation:
- “Saudi women have been fighting for the right to drive for the past 25 years. In the 1990s, a group of about 40 women drove their cars in the same day to denounce the ban. In 2007, I filmed myself behind the wheel on International Women’s day…The King has to take the brave, necessary step of lifting the driving ban…The King has gone a long way on women’s rights. He authorized co-ed universities, has made it legal for a woman to be interviewed by media, etc. He now has to take a brave, necessary step and lift the driving ban.” Saudi Woman Arrested Defying Driving Ban: Manal al-Sharif retrieved 5 May 2013
Manal al-Sharif is a women’s rights activist who sparked a campaign to allow women the right to drive in Saudi Arabia in 2011. The campaign was called “Women2Drive” and has been discussed in the context of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. The campaign called for women to drive starting on June 17, 2011.
Wajeha al-Huwaider filmed a video of al-Sharif driving and posted it on YouTube and Facebook.
More than 600,000 people watched the video before it was removed.
She was arrested on May 21 and jailed for 9 days. Women in Saudi Arabia Drive in Protest of Law NYTimes, June 17, 2011. Retrieved 5 May 2013 According to the press, Saudi authorities “cracked down harder than usual on al-Sharif, after seeing her case become a rallying call for youths anxious for change” in the context of the Arab Spring.” | Saudi authorities extend detention of woman who defied ban on female drivers. Winnipeg Free Press/AP. Retrieved 5 May 2013
Regardless of the government response, the call to action was positively received among women in Saudi Arabia. More than 12,000 people “liked” the Facebook page for the campaign and pledged support for the day of driving. The page and Twitter account were deactivated, which only led to other activists creating online groups declaring their support for the cause and an end to the driving ban. One group had up to 14,000 members. | Saudi authorities extend detention of woman who defied ban on female drivers. Winnipeg Free Press/AP. Retrieved 5 May 2013
The use of the Internet is striking in this incident, as al-Sharif was able to amass a large supporter base and publicize her protest on a grand scale.
al-Sharif received the Norweigan Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2012. Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent
Since then, al-Sharif has also spoken out against the appointment of women by King Abdullah to the advisory council in January 2013 as being too small and not worthy of political significance. Woman Arrested Defying Driving Ban: Manal al-Sharif retrieved 5 May 2013
Samar Badawi is a female rights activist who became well known after a court case against her abusive father. Badawi is especially of note as an activist who has been using the legal system in attempts to expand women’s rights. According to the United States Department of State, Badawi was the first woman to file a lawsuit for the right to vote for women in Saudi Arabia.International Women of Courage Award Winners 5 March 2012. Retrieved 5 May 2013
She has brought three cases to the regional and national courts regarding:
- Freedom from her father’s guardianship: The court case against her father was held on the grounds of adhl, his refusal to give permission to allow her to marry. The situation revealed that he had been abusive towards Badawi for 15 years, had 14 wives, and used drugs. Her father responded with lawsuits charging her for disobedience. She was held in prison from April 4, 2010 until October 25, 2010 in relation to a charge of disobedience after she fled her father’s house for a women’s shelter. Saudi Arabian and international human rights groups such as the Saudi Arabian NGO Human Rights First Society campaigned for Badawi’s release from prison. Saudi woman jailed for disobeying father freed AFP 26 October 2010. Retrieved 5 May 2013According to the Human Rights Watch, “The Saudi government recognizes filial “disobedience” as a crime and denies an adult woman the right to live on her own and to marry of her free will.” Saudi Arabia: Where fathers and courts oblige Human Rights Watch, 18 October 2010. Retrieved 5 May 2013
- The right to drive: She applied for a driver’s license only to be refused and then used the grounds to bring the case to court.
- The right to vote: In 2011, Badawi filed the case against the Ministry for Municipal and Rural Affairs because “municipal election centers refused to register my name” when she tried to register to vote. woman voter takes ministry to court Saudi Gazette, retrieved 5 May 2013She claims that their refusal was illegal, citing Articles 3 and 24 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights Arab Charter on Human Rights The Board accepted to hear her case in 2011, but ended the process later that year claiming that her suit was “premature.” Woman’s vote claim rejected 29 May 2011. Retrieved 5 May 2013 Women have since gained the right to vote in an announcement from King Abdullah that they will be allowed to participate in the 2015 elections. MacFarquhar, NeilWomen to vote in Saudi Arabia King says NYTimes, 25 September 2011. Retrieved 5 May 2013
She has been awarded by the United States State Department for her struggle to make a stand for women’s rights. International Women of Courage Award Winners 5 March 2012. Retrieved 5 May 2013
“Wadjda” is a film released in 2012 and directed by the female director Haifaa al-Mansour. Haifaa al-Mansour L’Express. Retrieved 5 May 2013 It made its premier into the international scence in 2012 at the Festival of Venice. It won the Dubai International Film Festival’s award for best Arab feature-length film. It is the first film ever produced entirely from inside the country of Saudi Arabia and the first film to be produced by a female director. Reuters. First Female Director Seeks to Break Gender Taboos Times Live, 3 September 2012. Retrieved 5 May 2013 While the film is a step forward for women, al-Mansour made sure to explain that her film was not meant to be provocative but simply an expression of her opinions. Baurez, Thomas. Al-Mansour: “Avec Wadjda, je ne veux pas provoquer, mais de partager mes opinions” L’Express 10 February 2013. Retrieved 5 May 2013 During some moments while directing the film, al-Mansour had to hide herself in the back of a truck as certain neighborhoods disapproved the presence of a woman directing a team filled with men. Baurez, Thomas. Al-Mansour: “Avec Wadjda, je ne veux pas provoquer, mais de partager mes opinions” L’Express 10 February 2013. Retrieved 5 May 2013 While the film was made with official permission and even received backing by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s studio Rotana Studio, Macnab, Geoffrey al-Mansour reveals struggles of Directing Wadjda Screen Daily, 15 May 2012. Retrieved 5 May 2013 it will not be shown in Saudi Arabia, mainly because there are no theaters in the country. Al Hussaini, Amira Why are there no cinemas 12 May 2008. Retrieved 5 May 2013
The film tells the story of a young girl (Waad Mohammed) who wants to own a bike. Wadjda enters into a competition in which she must memorize passages of the Qu’ran in order to win the prize money. The film focuses on the relationship Wadjda has with her mother (played by Reem Abdullah) and the continual reinforcement of societal norms. In one scene, Wadjda’s mother cannot go to work because her husband has stopped paying the chauffeur who takes her there. In another, Wadjda is confronted by her headmistress and told to no longer wear her trademark sneakers but rather black shoes like everyone else.
The film presents many situations which women in Saudi Arabia face daily and critiques it in a way that presents that the issues lie from within the society itself. Men rarely make an appearance in the film, and when they do, they are not “evil”. Instead, there are more interactions between women that show the de facto nature of self-reinforcement among women, which has strengthened the system itself.
Biking was previously not permitted for young women in Saudi Arabia. However, with the announcement by King Abdullah in April 2013, women are now allowed to bike for recreational purposes. It is interesting to note a potential correlation between an internationally recognized film about a young girl who wants to ride a bike and a change in policy. While the easing of restrictions is a step towards independence and more freedoms, many restrictions remain in place. Women still must be covered and wearing an abayah and accompanied by a male guardian. Saudi Arabia Eases Women’s Bicycle Restrictions Daily Beast. 2 April 2013. Retrieved 5 May 2013 Arabia Eases ban on women riding bikes Al Jazeera. 2 April 2013. Retrieved 5 May 2013
Rowdha Yousef is the founder of a campaign called “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.” The group, which began with only 15 women, quickly gathered 5,400 signatures for a petition on “rejecting the ignorant requests of those inciting liberty” and demanding “punishments for those who call for equality between men and women, mingling between men and women in mixed environments, and other unacceptable behaviors.”Zoepf, Katherine Talk of Women’s Rights Divides Saudi Arabia NYTimes, 31 May 2010, retrieved 5 May 2013 The group asks King Abdullah to ignore the calls of other activists for gender equality. Yousef argues that women fighting against the society through their campaigns are strongly influenced by Westerners and misunderstand their fellow Saudi women.
The conservative movement argues against the “radical” liberal approaches of activists like al-Huwaider, believing rather that the majority of society wishes for things to stay as they are. The campaign believes that there are ways to be free and comfortable underneath the guardian system. –[User:Sschor|Sschor]
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