The socio-economic structure of Saudi Arabia has always influenced the role women were expected to play in the country. Before the oil-boom, women had to contribute to the family’s income by working inside and outside the house, as well as bearing children and rearing them. After the oil-boom and the sudden wealth from oil revenues, women were no longer needed to work.
Moreover, the strict religious atmosphere that dominated the cultural and social scene in the 1980s and 1990s had a regressive impact on women. During these two decades, the religious discourse over-emphasized the importance of a woman’s virtue, placing it at the center of her existence. Similarly, segregation between the sexes became a core value; hence women were encouraged to stay at home.
Emphasizing modesty and virtue in school and at home had a strong impact on how women perceived themselves. Being virtuous was part of a complicated web of family honor, religious teachings and social expectations. Breaking away from this web meant destroying the delicate fibre that holds a woman’s identity together.
The first test to evaluate the enthusiasm for change was in 1990 when a group of Saudi women drove their own cars in Riyadh to protest the driving ban. These 47 women were prosecuted, fired from their jobs and banned from travelling. The strong condemnation of their action by religious scholars was not surprising. However, it was the reaction among Saudi women themselves that demonstrated a lack of awareness of their basic rights.
As a child then, I do remember the heated debate the driving demonstration generated in female circles and in school. School principals and teachers took an active role in asking students to sign petitions condemning the the actions of the 47 women. Women in social gatherings echoed the views of religious scholars who were vocal in denouncing the driving demonstration. This wide negative reaction explains why no such demands were ever raised again for two decades.
The introduction of the internet and satellite dishes in the 1990s changed the static image of women in society. Using the internet was the first step that allowed women more freedom and, subsequently, more private space without being monitored. Television programs highlighted the different lifestyles in neighboring Arab countries. The growing trend of reality television and the appeal of these shows allowed the youth to break away from the strict religious teachings, at least in their own private spaces.
The generous scholarship program by the late King Abdullah which was launched in 2005 allowed many Saudi men and women to study abroad. The scholarship program along with the wide use of social media can be attributed to the growing awareness of women’s rights. Saudi women who joined the program might have been small in numbers initially, however, they made a great impact by broadcasting their lives abroad on social media platforms. Women who were not able to join the program realized that their limited living standards was imposed on them by the patriarchal system. This sparked the first realization among women that the quality of life differs between them based on the flexibility and understanding of their male guardians.
The growing number of female students abroad allowed some of them to be hosted in foreign television programs to talk about the situation of women in Saudi Arabia. Since many of these women were abroad because they come from a privileged background that does not impose the guardianship system on them, they would speak positively about the situation of women in the country. Not mentioning the restrictiveness of the guardianship system that imposes shackles on a big number of women was the tipping point for the wide awareness of the importance of women’s solidarity. One of these students is seen in the coming video justifying the guardianship system, arguing that she supports it even if it restricts her own movement.
In 2011, Manal Al-Sharif drove her car in Dhahran while being filmed by another Saudi activist. The video that was posted on YouTube was the first driving attempt after the 1990 driving demonstration. News of her arrest showed how polarized the Saudi society was; some were supportive of her action whereas others demanded that she should be flogged. After Al-Sharif’s release, a small number of Saudi women continued to challenge the driving ban from the summer of 2011 until the autumn of 2014. The support for these women was big enough to generate debate on social media. The driving demonstrations ended when Loujain Al-Hathloul attempted to drive her can from the UAE to Saudi Arabia but was subsequently arrested and detained for two months.
The growing momentum of women’s solidarity is the result of a number of factors that unfolded simultaneously. On the one hand, women inside the country were actively attempting to lift the ban on driving or raise awareness to the grievances of other women. On the other hand, privileged Saudi women broadcasted their worry-free lives on social media or ignored the situation of other women inside the country. These two different views encouraged more women to take an active stance in showing their support and solidarity.
Moreover, a growing number of Saudi women fleeing from their abusive male guardians became more visible everyday. The year 2017 witnessed a big number of cases that were widely discussed in Saudi Arabia and abroad. However, some would never manage to leave the country, or would only use social media to shed light on their dire situation inside their homes. There are three different cases that show the increased awareness of women’s grievances and the growing momentum of women’s solidarity.
The first case that generated widespread support was the story of Dina Ali who was attempting to seek asylum in Australia but was detained en route in the Philippines. She was quick to post videos updating others on her situation while being held in Manila airport. Her case created much sympathy and support under the hashtag #SaveDinaAli.
The extent of women’s solidarity was not only on social media but also on the ground. When Dina Ali was on a flight back to Riyadh with her male guardians, a small number of Saudis went to the airport to show their solidarity. A young Saudi female student, Alaa Alenezi, was arrested when she inquired about Dina Ali’s flight. Her release was celebrated on social media and demonstrate the growing importance of women’s solidarity.
Mariam Al-Otaibi is another case that caused much debate on social media. She was arrested after leaving her father’s house in an attempt to live independently. Her detention for 104 days and subsequent release was considered a victory for women’s rights in Saudi since she was released without her male guardian. She continues to post regularly on social media and is still an active campaigner for women’s rights.
The case of Amna Aljuaid is still ongoing since many do not know her current whereabouts. She made an emotional plea online to raise awareness of her situation while living in the same house with her abusive father. She was never heard of again, however, the hashtag
#SaveAmna continues to trend until today.
Dina Ali and Amna Aljuaid are still in Saudi Arabia but their whereabouts are unknown. Social media has become the ground where activists voice their concern regarding the situation of Saudi women and their grievances. The growing momentum of women’s solidarity can be seen with daily hashtags demanding the abolishing of the guardianship system or inquiring about the fate of women whose whereabouts are still unknown. However, there still remain a substantial number of women in Saudi Arabia who oppose change. They prefer to keep the status quo of women as it is, believing that not doing so means breaking away from the religious teachings that must be followed in the country.