The case of Rahaf Al-Qunon, the Saudi woman who fled to Canada earlier this month, generated public and private debate among Saudis. The international support she received was faced with equal criticism at home. The social media outrage demonstrates the various constrains women face in the patriarchal society.
Saudi Feminism as Radicalism
Saudi feminists have gone through periods of ups and downs in their quest for rights and equality. However, after the case of Rahaf, a growing hostility against Saudi feminists became highly visible on social media, framing the movement as a “danger to national security” under the hashtag (#النسويات_خطر_امني). A Saudi columnist in Okaz newspaper called for the government to “eradicate” feminists like it did before with terrorism.
A Saudi photographer depicted the current climate against Saudi feminists in a photo he posted on Twitter titled “recruitment” with the hashtag #10yearchallenge. In an attempt to illustrate how terrorism has evolved since 2009, he shows a man wearing a suicide belt and is blindfolded with a cloth emblazoned with the Islamic declaration of faith. In 2019, a woman is the one wearing the belt, however, a microphone is in seen attached to it. Similar to the suicide militant, she is also blindfolded, but with a Canadian flag. The artist seems to suggest that military radicalism has evolved into radical feminism which is being instrumentalized by foreign powers.
The photograph has generated mixed reactions. Some argue that Saudi women are victims of foreign agendas, whereas others believe that Saudi feminists themselves are responsible for the current crisis by breaking down the family structure and weakening Islamic traditions and values. On the other hand, Saudi feminists agree that the photograph is an attempt to undermine their struggle and label it as a form of radicalism and Western interference. Comparing a suicide militant to a woman seeking freedom demonstrates the polarization of views on women’s rights.
The social media backlash did not only target Saudi feminists but also included Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy. Eltahawy was portrayed in a number of newspapers as an activist with an agenda targeting Muslim women, and especially Saudis, to rebel against the system “under the guise of freedom”.
The Rentier State Mindset
Even though Saudi Arabia is trying to decrease its dependency on oil and diversify its economy, the cultural and social habits associated with the rentier state do not seem to follow a similar path. The case of Rahaf Al-Qunon confirms that the rentier state mindset remains unaffected.
Gulf millennial (celebrities and non-celebrities alike) were fast at denouncing Rahaf’s action in a number of videos they posted on social media. Their reasoning relies almost fully on the benefits the government and the family provide, despite the discomfort one might encounter at home. A Kuwaiti social media celebrity said that the West “only has freedom” but lacks strong family ties and domestic labor that ensures “clothes are ironed and beds are made”, arguing that such comfort of living will not be available elsewhere.
Freedom of Choice?
Upon her arrival to Canada, Rahaf accelerated the backlash when she shared photos of herself drinking and smoking. As a result, some expressed skepticism about her real reasons for leaving the country. Being a domestic violence victim was largely dismissed by the public, even though Rahaf stated in an interview that she suffered from abuse by her mother and brother. Others have expressed relief that she decided to leave, arguing that she does not represent Saudi women. Such reasoning sheds light on the existing culture of exclusion that ostracizes individuals who openly exhibit preferences and choices that are alien to the norms of the society and culture.
The backlash Rahaf generated demonstrates how the society at large can impose even more constrains on women. Saudi feminists might face now more pressure from social media users after comparing them to radical groups. This will put yet another obstacle in the road of feminists who have been calling for removing the guardianship system that imposes shackles on women. Moreover, more women might try to follow Rahaf’s path which will ultimately lead to more similar cases in the future. Rahaf considered herself a “lucky one” because she managed to run away. However, the success rate of such drastic measures remain low, judging from the previous failed attempts by other Saudi women. Women will continue to battle the restrictions imposed on them, whether by attempting to flee to another country, or by fighting their guardians at home.