Why Some Women in Saudi Arabia Oppose Change?

As the international Women’s Day approaches, one can say with confidence that Saudi Arabian women are now more aware than ever before of their rights. Hashtag activism is an ever-growing trend in a society that finds social media the only outlet to call for change and voice demands. The increasing awareness of various grievances experienced by women as victims of domestic violence or the male guardianship system demonstrates the growing solidarity among women in the country.

However, a substantial number of Saudi women opposing change can also be heard on social media platforms. Their demands and concerns seem to be almost absent in the evaluation of women’s rights in the country. Understanding the motivations and beliefs of this group is vital in analyzing the polarization between those calling for change and those rejecting it.

A Historic Context

The sahwa era played a key role in producing an image of the ideal Muslim woman for others to follow. Women were not only encouraged to dress modestly, but to play an active role in preserving the Muslim identity and values. Various sermons and religious speeches were dedicated to demonstrate the importance of obedience and virtue, especially in marriage. Women’s role in society was seen as purely domestic as many sahwa scholars stressed the importance of a woman’s place in her own home.

The rise of female preachers further emphasized this perception as a growing number of them took an active role in preaching during social gatherings. Female preaches were even more specific about the roles women must play in society as they validated and emphasized the importance of being a good wife and mother. As a result, Saudi women experienced the “double burden” of two different religious discourses: one which is male in the public sphere; and another which is female in the private sphere.

Social media allowed religious figures to maintained their influence even further through the cyber sphere. Female preachers and religious figures like Rokaya Al-Mohareb, Nawal Al-Eid, and Nora Al-Saad are among some of the social media stars on Twitter. Their male counterparts continue to dominate and gain the appreciation and admiration of a large number of conservative males and females in the country and abroad.

The West and Westernization

Women in Saudi Arabia have always been contrasted with their western counterparts. School teachings emphasized how Muslim women are protected as opposed to western women who are usually illustrated as victims of violence and sexual harassment. Gender segregation and modesty are considered the basis for promoting virtue and preventing vice and harassment.

Another issue brought forward by female and male preachers is the spread of Westernization and the importance of countering it. To them, Westernization is responsible for calls to liberate and emancipate women which remain counter to Islamic teachings. In the coming sermon by Saudi religious scholar Saleh Al-Fozan, he can be heard criticizing those who allow women to travel without a male guardian or work in un-segregated environments. He argues that limiting women’s movement should not be considered an act of injustice, and that injustice is allowing her to be responsible for tasks that are above her capabilities.

Social and Cultural Burdens 

The subordination of women has been normalized over the year as part of a discourse that considered her too fragile, too weak or mentally incapable for everyday’s demands. Moreover, the society and culture played a vital role in asserting the importance of virtue as it does not only guarantee a woman social acceptance, but can also reflect on her family and upbringing. Saudi religious scholar Mohammed Al-Arifi demonstrates the qualities of virtuous and obedient women in the coming video. He mentions a Hadith that describes how women who disobey their husbands are cursed by angels to emphasize the punishments inflicted on them.

The dominant religious discourses of the past few decades resulted in the construction of a female identity that does not affect only her, but also her wider surroundings. Women were considered responsible for the perverseness of the Muslim identity for future generations. This constant conditioning resulted in some women viewing change as a threat to family values, society and religion. The following tweets demonstrate how conservative Saudi women view virtue and modesty as a reflection of their identity and values.

Polarization in the New Saudi Arabia 

Due to the wide-scale of reforms introduced in the country, the population has been polarized into two groups; those who are conservatives and those who see themselves as nationalistic. Nationalism is now linked with progressiveness and by distancing oneself from the sahwa discourse. On the other hand, as the demands for change and calls for reforms began gaining momentum over the past few years, conservative Saudi women were no longer contrasted with their western counterparts, but with Saudi women activists calling for change.

Saudi women in an event in Riyadh (Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times)

Saudi women calling for change are mostly part of a growing feminist movement that is demanding total abolishing of the male guardianship system. Conservative women, on the other hand, see them as westernized and, as a reaction, they also use nationalism as a way to emphasize the importance of the religious values they represent as conservative Saudi women.

The new reforms and changes in Saudi Arabia had an affect on the perception of nationalism and identity for those calling for change and others opposing it. Change is seen by some as part of a national reform project that is long overdue. On the other hand, conservative Saudi women see nationalism as a continuity to their Saudi religious identity, even if nationalism is now considered by some as contrary to the sahwa era. The recent reforms, and the coming ones, will have a further impact on the construction of a national identity away from the old one that normalized the subordination of women.

 

 

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