By Aiyana Vittoria Amplatz
It might seem strange to see Saudi Arabia being used as a case study for women’s rights. The Middle East has often been considered rather “backwards” in terms of the advancement of women’s empowerment. Most Western countries have mocked the state of affairs rebelling against it and considering it a scandal. One such example saw Queen Elizabeth II driving Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah around her Scottish estate Balmoral on a royal Land Rover in 1998. While the royal family did not comment on the move, this was interpreted as a powerful political message.
Contrary to the criticism of the Saudi government and its behaviour towards women, there are multiple sources that ascertain its increasing progress apropos women’s empowerment. In recent years, strict dress regulations and mandatory gender segregation were abolished. In 2018 the ban on women drivers was dissolved and starting in 2022 the government of Saudi Arabia made it also possible for women to apply for jobs as taxi drivers. Moreover, now it also seems that women make up a large percentage of the workforce as border agents and tour guides, in hospitality and fields that would have seemed unimaginable a few years ago. Is it possible that we are witnessing a Saudi Arabia that is progressing in a manner different from what the Western world perceives?
As much as the new direction of the country towards a brighter future might seem better than anybody would have hoped it to be, the media’s narrative might differ greatly from the truth. In fact, positive changes by the government are far from genuine human rights reforms, instead, some might say they are rather meant to deflect attention from the continued brutal crackdown on activists and human rights defenders and other flagrant human rights violations. Despite publicly welcoming women’s freedom, the government has in many instances tried to domestically suppress women’s political rights. For example, on May 30th 2023, the women’s rights activist Manahel al-Otaibi was arrested and imprisoned for having Twitter and Snapchat accounts that demanded more fundamental rights inside the Kingdom. Al-Otaibi was accused by Saudi authorities of calling for an end to the guardianship rules which in practice facilitate domestic violence and sexual abuse in marriage.
These conflicting views stem from an intricate mechanism Saudi Arabia’s government uses to maintain its international reputation despite violating fundamental rights. Authoritarian regimes are constantly exposed to high international pressure on the adoption of democratic policies and are publicly not willing to comply with them. Because such regimes care about their international reputation, we see the blatant implementation of pro-empowerment policies in order to forgo adopting democratic practices. Unfortunately, women’s empowerment ends up being directly affected by this mechanism.
Empowerment can be defined as giving power and authority to those who until now did not have it. It can be divided into three broad categories – political, economic, and social. It might be trivial to say that the government of Saudi Arabia does not grant any type of political participation to women as the whole Saudi population itself is deprived of basic political rights including voting rights, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and right of opposition. In regards to social empowerment, the term encompasses both political and economic aspects since some indicators used for its measurement are political participation and education attainment. As the government does not grant political rights, social empowerment meets the same fate.
Economic empowerment, on the other hand, seems more isolated from political empowerment albeit this idea can be contested. Economic empowerment is often measured through initiatives such as socioeconomic development initiatives, management control or labour force participation. While these indicators may require political considerations such as political structure and decision-making, none directly necessitate political participation. This may explain why the Saudi government only concentrates its policy changes on the economic field. Most notably on the increase of women’s labour force participation. In essence, economic empowerment does not require the Saudi government to yield excessive political power to its people.
As aforementioned, due to a need to maintain its international reputation, the government of Saudi Arabia seeks to prove to the international audience that the country has in fact made progress in the protection of women’s rights. Because the Kingdom is very strict on freedom of expression, most newspapers, although privately owned, are subsidised as well as regulated by the government and are used as the Kingdom’s primary resource to spread the news about positive policy changes. Among the most famous news agencies of Saudi Arabia, there are some used by the regime to publish articles in English. One could argue this is done in order to reach a wider audience and therefore spread positive ideas about the country’s current stance on women’s empowerment. This can be seen in Arabic news agencies which focus less on the topic as they are not aimed at the international audience but rather at the domestic one.
The Saudi government may have taken important steps towards the improvement of women’s empowerment. Nevertheless, following the country’s need to maintain a good international reputation, the only progress made is in the economic sphere. This allows the government to avoid making a significant change to the political state of affairs in the country which sees most of the political and social rights being violated. Moreover, although the narrative of a more open country towards women’s inclusion in labour force participation seems plausible, families in the country might still need to adjust to the new reality slowing down the process itself. Therefore, when analyzing the country’s policy on women’s rights, it is important to take it with a grain of salt. There is an apparent disconnect between narrative and reality when it comes to women’s rights as such these initiatives that we see in the media cannot simply be interpreted as reality. Will this fabricated illusion of openness eventually result in more reclusion in the future?
Edited by Sol Zeev Ben Mordehai, artwork by Kübra Atalay