Saudi Arabia: 'Saudi Feminism: Between Mama Amreeka and Baba Abdullah'


On 9 May 2012, Manal al-Sharif was awarded the Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. This came shortly after al-Sharif was honored as one of TIME’s100 Most Influential People in the World at a Gala in New York City. Such events have given rise to a pattern: just as numerous pictures and videos of activists attending various conferences and receiving numerous awards surface, waves of criticism pour in. Their motives are viewed with suspicion, worthiness is questioned, and a movement’s progress is reassessed.

The most prevalent criticism of Manal al-Sharif was that she was accepting an award for political dissent when she was only, at most, asocial activist. This criticism was not meant to undermine her efforts but rather to allocate them a bit further down the activist totem pole, so to speak, in order to remove them from the high pedestal they had been placed on. One ought to note, however, that al-Sharif herself stated at the Forum that, “I don’t consider myself a dissident, I had to actually ask what it was.” So, it seems, she may agree with her critics.

Well then, why was al-Sharif being hailed as a dissident? This is what happens when women’s rights are treated as foreign rights to those of male citizens. We now find ourselves caught in this grey area of whether Manal al-Sharif is a women’s rights advocate or a social or political activist. Is a Saudi woman driving a social act, thus allowing for the regime’s claim that it is a matter to be left to society, or is it a political act, leading to its official dismissal as an outright challenge to the state? To some observers, her act was political. It was in fact a challenge to the state. It is true that there is no written law that bans women from driving, but the act of driving in and of itself nonetheless challenged state authority (and its established status quo). What makes al-Sharif’s critics reluctant, and perhaps rightfully so, to agree with this strictly political portrayal of her acts, is that the rhetoric she chose to accompany her actions was anything but political. In her Youtube videos, she praises the King, emphasized the she was not violating any laws in the Kingdom, and, more importantly, she claimed that female driving was a social taboo that needs to be broken and nothing more. This sort of rhetoric maintains the established child-parent relationship that Saudi women have with the state. While talk of demanding full citizenship, a political demand, did come up in al-Sharif’s campaign, it was still cloaked in a request that was social in nature. The campaign used the King’s face for its Facebook page and most of its official statements began by paying some sort of respect to the Saudi regime. As a result, the issue was reinforced as a social one. It was discussed in newspapers for months, people posted many opinion videos, and tweets were widely circulated, but that was it.

The Right2Dignity campaign made an attempt to turn to the political when it filed a lawsuit against the Saudi Traffic Department for denying Manal al-Sharif her driver’s license despite there being no written law against issuing one to a woman. Another Saudi activist, Samar Badawy, did the same. This was a head-on collision with the state. Both women voiced  an outright demand for women’s right to drive—an act that is already technically legal—rather than calling for wishy-washy patrimonial supportive concessions from the regime. Unfortunately, the government has been skilled at bureaucratically stifling this legal maneuver. It also refused to allow any sort of legislation that affirms women’s rights to drive; instead it entertained allegedly scientific and academic studies which argued that driving leads to loss of virginity. Yet, some might wonder why in the months to follow women were given the right to join municipal elections, work in lingerie shops, or join the Olympics? It was not contradictory of the Saudi regime to embark on such “reforms” and yet hold back on the decision to allow women to drive; it was actually being rather consistent. This is because “Baba Abdullah,” the nation’s father figure, granted those rights in the form of reforms, all as a method to reaffirm the child-parent relationship with Saudi women and discourage any efforts to make demands in a political manner.

So, does this mean Manal al-Sharif did not earn her prize and that the Right2Dignity campaign was a failure? In truth, I find the question itself to be posed falsely. The fact of the matter is that al-Sharif was an accidental activist. She never intended to be political. Jillian York writes of how al-Sharif originally came up with the idea to post two Youtube videos in support of women driving in Saudi Arabia as simply a birthday dare she had challenged herself to do. Al-Sharif spoke of her unexpected role at the Oslo Freedom Forum in explaining, “Havel said, we never decided to be dissidents, we were transformed into them, without ever quite knowing how. We sometimes ended up in prison, without ever knowing how. There are things in life, you don’t choose them, they choose you.” This sums up her story. Such unplanned action has implications, however, such as the fact that she did not start out with the vision of herself as an activist. Her family’s distress at her sudden arrest, and the amount of hate mail she received—including Shaikhs’ sermons against her—were not consequences she had anticipated as a result of her drive. In such light, I think it would be fair to show her a little compassion in judging the progression of her actions. She had never intended to be a full-on activist, and so she cannot be judged in terms of what characterizes a political dissident.

However, I sense that most of the online criticism directed at al-Sharif and her recent award was not really about her, but about the exclusive focus the media has given her. There is a deep sense of unfairness regarding its selectiveness. There is also a sense of resentment that the award is supposedly for dissent, yet many Saudi dissenters find themselves forgotten in jail cells. There is anger for the political voices that are left unheard because they are not in the safe and social, preferably female and victim-looking, realm of Saudi activism. This blatantly apparent selectiveness in attention to certain types of activism can be viewed as allowing Saudis a “revolt” in a bubble. This bubble is what I labeled as strictly “social,” because it never quite enters the political realm. It still operates within the child-parent relationship, rather than promote a citizen-state dynamic. It is the permissible revolt, the soft headlines that will not affect the price of oil. Unlike revolts in the Eastern Province which are far removed from this bubble or after prayer protests outside mosques that have led to the imprisonment of many activists. Also unlike revolts in opinion pieces that were considered “a little too much” and soon removed from newspaper sites along with their authors being swiftly silenced, or revolts in politically charged tweets whose authors disappeared shortly afterwards. Further yet, unlike bodily revolts in which stomachs refuse to eat in protest of arbitrary arrest. All these revolts… they are ignored. They do not receive any attention or award, although they deserve it more than any other. While Saudi women’s fight against discriminatory laws is also a revolt, in the specific case of Manal al-Sharif, as I have argued, it was not that of a political dissident. Rather, it was morphed into a revolt within a state-controlled, social bubble.

Is it fair to demand more of Manal al-Sharif? If her cause was not political, does that rid it of all worth? Also, is the method a campaign chooses crucial, or should one be concerned with results alone? The answer to such questions lead to a somewhat heated discussion on Twitter among feminists, debating the implications and effectiveness of al-Sharif’s social action. The different positions taken are crucial in understanding the fragmented Saudi feminist movement. I will loosely characterize each, simplifying their opinions somewhat, in order to show the main trains of thought I have observed by most when considering feminism in the Saudi case.

Madawi Al-Rasheed is an academic; her arguments are typically based on political theory and historical fact. She views the Saudi feminist movement as lacking because it isolates women’s rights from others, and then proceeds by removing itself from the realm of the political altogether. She also views it as compromising its integrity as a local movement when it accepts awards or support in general from the West, a hypocritical act given Western states are the staunchest supporters of the oppressive and discriminatory regimes these women are fighting against. Mona El-Tahawy is a media magnet, her words travel fast and her passion is for what is in the moment. She claims the feminist movement is successful at this point, since it has pointed to the misogyny of men and clerics towards women in Saudi Arabia. Her understanding of the fight for women’s rights essentially consists of affirming women as the Other who faces oppressive forces of misogynic readings of religion and male-dominated culture, and is in need of liberation. This liberation often comes about by demonizing the forces that she deems oppressive and backward, appealing to pathos and sympathy to support women’s efforts in doing so. With the ultimate end goal of liberation, Mona Eltahawyrejects Al-Rasheed’s arguments as the ramblings of a theorist who betrays her noble objective of easing the harsh reality experienced by average Saudi women. The two debated their views on Twitter, the discussion deteriorated into a disagreement over who had lived longer in Saudi Arabia as a “real” Saudi woman, and who was more compassionate despite their later privileged life abroad. At this point Ebtihal Mubarak joined the conversation. She rejected what she sensed as a desire to prioritize political rights or a belittling of Women2Drive in Al-Rasheed’s argument, but also rejecting what she viewed as Eltahawy’s victimization of Saudi women.

I agree with Ebtihal Mubarak’s argument that rights ought not be prioritized. In other words, the demand for the right to drive ought not be dismissed as frivolous since it is still an injustice, but that this demand ought not be framed as a victim’s cry for help. But at the heart of the discussions that later erupted was, first, a question of whether Manal al-Sharif was deserving such an award, whether her campaign was indeed political and she was actually a “dissident.” Second, there was the question of whether she ought to even accept the award at all, so the question of when is outside support legitimate. I have previously addressed the issue of Manal al-Sharif being given the award. I will now turn to the question of outside support. Madawi Al-Rasheed gave her own view on support from Western powers when she said, “the woman [i.e. the West] who honors you for calling for driving is the same one who kills the dream of women in many Arab countries.”Hutoon al-Rasheed, a member of the Right2Dignity campaign, disagreed. The award was deserved, she claimed, because the act of a woman driving in Saudi Arabia was a sign of defiance. But, this does not answer our questions concerning outside support. It simply takes the award itself out of context. Mainly, is there a requirement to applaud and accept every form of support given, regardless of its underlying meaning and political underpinnings? Shouldn’t one seek to control the narrative forming around her cause as much as possible, as well as how the support received is framed?

Recently I have become painfully aware of the importance of narrative. The means any given campaign is willing to use to reach its ends are of the utmost importance. I admire Madawi Al-Rasheed’s rejection of support from imperialist Western powers as part of a broader objection to governmental alliances. However, I view this stance as running against the fact that governments are amoral creatures, will always be self-interested, and thus it is pointless to expect otherwise of them. Instead, the hypocrisy Al-Rasheed points to can be used to have one governmental power pressure another. But I am also not in favor of Hutoon Al-Rasheed’s acceptance of all forms of support and outside pressure, because some support comes with a cost. This cost, or requirement, has recently been embodied in Mona Eltahawy’s last Foreign Policy article, “Why They Hate Us” (which I wrote a response to here), that basically allocates women the role of victims. It also voids injustices women face of its political nature, and solidifies her fight as one with the opposite sex, culture, and religion. And in this case I do not believe the ends, women’s civil rights, justifies the means, women’s rights becoming social issues. Not because the end is of any small value, but because it is the polar opposite of the proposed means.

Mona Eltahawy argues that her approach is that of an opinion writer, poking in the hard places to spark conversation. And once this is done, results can be seen since it is brought to global attention. While some enthralled with passion for results may outright dismiss my critique, I believe responsibility must be assumed when writing narratives on causes. What is written today is what will be remembered tomorrow. Words narrate actions taken, and it is crucial they do so in the most just way possible. Agitating in a manner that is void of theory is just as pointless as theorizing yourself into an isolated corner.

About a year ago, when I first joined twitter, I did so after witnessing Tahrir, and being enraged at Manal al-Sharif’s arrest. One of my feminist idols was Mona Eltahawy. I found her fiery tweets and her countless appearances on CNN to be rather inspiring. At the time, I did not pay attention to details and my opinions were largely ridden of context. Now, how a Saudi woman’s fight in her own country is framed is crucially important to me. I simply cannot stand it turning into a sob-fest for victimized and oppressed women. I cannot stand the thought of the demand for an end to guardianship by calling on “Mama Amreeka” to save oppressed Saudi women from misogynic culture, or, conversely, calling on “Baba Abdullah” to protect Saudi women from a supposedly sexist society and extremist clerics. In both cases Saudi women remain a “special” case, allocating them the position of a child, and separating their struggle from that of men. If the means are carried out in such a way that coincides with the status quo, how proud are we to be of the results? When I participated in the online fervor for Manal al-Sharif’s release during the nine days she was in jail, I did not argue with people too much. I dismissed the relevance of the narrative that was being created around me. My sole focus was al-Sharif’s release. Occasionally, I would read a sexist comment or two against Saudi men, or all Muslim men, and I would let it slide. I remember thinking: it is sensational, but that is what will work. Now, I see that you cannot, or at least should not, do that. In doing so, I was using the Saudi woman as a means, by allowing her to play the role of victim, in order to achieve my goal. What good is a fight for dignity by first denouncing it and assuming the role of victim? What good is a fight for citizenship if it is done against my fellow citizens?

This is how my view on feminism has changed. Agnes Heller highlights this different perspective on feminism in saying, “Women’s Studies do nothing more than put women back in the kitchen.” Meaning that, feminism that treats women as a social case of study, a feminism that is based on anything other than pride and power in the political realm, forever keeps her rights in the kitchen, i.e. the social realm. Thus leaving her at the mercy of those who will take care for her, rather than her becoming a citizen of the political realm who wills for herself. I realize one might argue at this point that I am a privileged woman, entertaining theory and detaching myself from the plight of “real” Saudi women. But, to me, this accusation holds little in substance. I am a Saudi woman. I have experienced discrimination. I do seek change. And this is not a rejection of all outside support as a method for achieving change within. I am fully aware of the rise of social media activism and the increasing globalization of politics, and I realize campaigns typically cannot succeed in isolation. But, this does not mean that I, or any other Saudi woman, must inevitably submit to every form of support she is offered. Nor does it mean that Saudi women must accept a narrative they do not approve of or exploit theatrical methods of victimhood that undermine the full volume of personhood they wish to achieve. Saudi feminism does not have to be a story of “Mama Amreeka” coming to the rescue, or “Baba Abdullah” choosing to “grant” her rights. Feminism based on pride in its demand for civil rights, not pity, is worthy of praise. Feminism based on Power in the face of an oppressive state, not timidness, is the aim. 

[This post was first published on Nora Abdulkarim's blog on 9 May 2012.]