Category Archives: Women’s Issues

Why the Outrage? The Case of Rahaf Al-Qunon

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.

Patriarchy and Domestic Violence in Saudi Arabia

Domestic violence is not an uncommon phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. For a long time, it remained a private matter not usually discussed in public. The year 2013 was a turning point in recognizing the problem when King Khalid Foundation launched the first campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence in the country. A few months later, a law was finally implemented that criminalizes domestic violence and enact penalties against offenders. However, such efforts did not help in preventing more cases as numbers kept steadily increasing even after the law was introduced. 

The ad of the first anti-domestic violence campaign titled "Some Things Can't be Covered". (CNN)

The ad of the first anti-domestic violence campaign titled “Some Things Can’t be Covered”. (CNN)

Why domestic violence laws failed to address the situation?

The deeply patriarchal society in Saudi Arabia often stands in the way of improving the situation of women in the country. Five years have passed since the launch of the campaign and the criminalization of domestic violence, yet, women remain skeptical of the mechanisms established by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development to deal with abuse.

One reason to explain the hesitation of women to reach out for help is due to the use of female detention centers, often called “hospitality homes”, to host female victims. A woman cannot leave these centers without the consent of her male guardian who, in often cases, is the abuser. An abused woman has to choose between staying in these centers or leaving with her abusive male guardian which often times lead to more abuse. Women are usually wary of being send to “hospitality homes” as former detainees have exposed the bad living conditions in some of these centers. Earlier this year, a woman who stayed for years in one of the “hospitality homes” agreed to marry a man who facilitated her release by signing as her official male guardian.

Twitter as a platform to report abuse

It is no wonder, then, that Twitter has become the preferred outlet for reporting domestic violence cases, especially among victims who do not want to be detained in “hospitality centers” while their abusers remain free. Women subject to violence know that Twitter is the only way they can generate public support and force government officials to do their job. Two cases of domestic violence trended almost simultaneously on Twitter on April 1. They have generated widespread public condemnation and showed the multi-layered complexity of addressing issues related to women in the private sphere.

A cartoon by Saudi cartoonist (ِ@jabertoon) depicting an public official sleeping on his desk and asking not to be disturbed unless if an issue becomes a Twitter trend.

Saudi cartoonist (jabertoon) depicting a public official sleeping under his desk and asking not to be disturbed unless a case becomes trending on Twitter.

Amal Al-Shammari from Hafar Al-Batin

Amal Al-Shammari posted a number of videos on Twitter in an attempt to reach out to the public about her situation. In these videos, she explains how her father abused her physically and verbally and would not allow her leave the house. Amal first sought help from the Ministry of Labor and Social Development’s office in Hafar Al-Batin by explaining her case to them. She was shocked to know that the office contacted her father and informed him that she reported him. This, according to Amal, led to more physical abuse as her father threatened to kill her. Amal used social media to criticize the Ministry for failing to perform its duty and to generate public support. Within hours, Amal’s case was trending on Twitter.

Patriarchy becomes an issue in Amal’s story when the ministry’s office contacted the father instead of helping her. It also shows that institutions working on domestic violence cases acknowledge the patriarchal system and do not work against it. As a result of contacting her father, Amal Al-Shammari became concerned over her life and had to escape with her mother. The trending hashtag caused Khalid Abalkhail, the ministry’s spokesman, to respond by saying that social protection and security agencies are working on protecting Amal Al-Shammari. Amal’s last tweet stated that her case has been referred to the public prosecution office. No more is known of Amal’s fate until today.

The case of the woman from Abha

The second case took place in the city of Abha in Asir province. Unlike Amal Al-Shammari, the victim in Abha did not reach out to the public. Her neighbor, however, recorded a video in which a woman’s screams can be heard. The video went viral on social media as the repeated screaming caused many Saudis to demand the prosecution of the abuser.

Ma’ali Almowaten, a television program that deals with timely social issues, interviewed Saad Al-Thabit, the spokesman of the Assir province, who said that there was no official complaint by the wife and no prove of abuse committed. He also stated that they took all the necessary steps, including a medical test, which proved that the woman was not a victim of domestic violence. Al-Thabit said that the recording of the incident should be considered a breach of family privacy. Ali Al-Alyani, the program’s host, refuted Al-Thabit’s claims, arguing that family connections in that region are known for “cover-ups” and that the victim remains powerless in the greater scheme of things.

Users of social media soon began circulating the name and the photo of a man alleged to be the husband of the abused woman. A few hours later, another television program interviewed both the man and the victim’s father. The father, Khalid Al-Harthi, confirmed that his daughter was not abused and her medical reports support that. The husband, Majid bin Maanea Omair, said that he was shocked to have security agencies reach his home. He also said that he welcomed them and offered his support. Khalid bin Maanea said that he will prosecute all of those who accused him on social media and that he was “hurt” to hear the screams of the woman. Ironically, however, many were interviewed on television to talk about the case except the abused woman herself.

Patriarchy and reforms

Patriarchy remains an issue in Saudi Arabia where male dominance is a cultural value dating back to pre-Islamic Arabia. Reforms targeting women will always have to trespass on the private sphere, a problem that the government wants to tackle it in a way “that doesn’t harm families and doesn’t harm the culture.”

The need for a guardian’s approval on major issues effecting women’s lives has been contested and rejected by a number of Saudi religious scholars as well as government official themselves. However, implementation remain an issue due to the deep-rooted believe in patriarchy and its centralization in family. Abolishing the guardianship system may be the most difficult reform step facing the government today. However, domestic violence cases will always show the complexity of the matter as patriarchy remains a central component that allows violence regardless of the government’s effort to tackle and criminalize it.


The Growing Momentum of Women’s Solidarity in Saudi Arabia

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.

Saudi women in the 1960s in Riyadh. (Alriyadh Newspaper)

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.

Segregation in Saudi Arabia can also by symbolic. (Lynsey Addario via The National Geographic)

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.

Segregation is also imposed in university classrooms. (Lynsey Addario via The National Geographic)

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  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.


Women, Sports and the Credibility of Religious Scholars

The participation of Saudi women in sports has always been disputed. Physical education was banned in girls’ schools, but allowed for boys. Majoring in sports education was not an option for female undergraduates, but was open to male students. Women were not allowed to compete as athletes in international sporting events or to join as spectators in national football matches. In school, exercising for girls was limited to a few jumping jacks during morning assembly, intended to mentally alert them rather than physically improve their overall well-being.

The absence of Saudi women in international sporting events resulted in increased negotiations to include them in the 2012 Olympics in London. Two Saudi athletes competed in London, Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani in judo and Sarah Attar in the 800-meter race.

Figure 1. Runner Sarah Attar in London Olympics 2012

The participation of Attar and Shahrkhani provoked a largely negative reaction among the Saudi population, even though they dressed in accordance to Islamic principles. When the two athletes left the competition early, they were accused of being incompetent. This unfavorable view of women and sports is embedded in the culture that has been shaped by the opinions and beliefs of religious scholars and what they deem as appropriate and in line with Islamic teachings.

For years, prominent Saudi and non-Saudi religious scholars in and outside the country have been debating whether Saudi women should engage in sports or not. Sheikh Abd Al-Aziz ibn Baz, the Grand Mufti and head of the Council of Ulema until his death in 1999, was against women’s participation in sports unless performed in gender-segregated venues. Other prominent scholars after him concluded that sports are not against Islamic teachings, but might open the door for “un-Islamic consequences” if allowed for women, and hence advised against it.

The year 2017 changed the de facto view of women and sports. In July, the Ministry of Education announced on its website that girls’ schools will start offering sports activities. The announcement generated debate among Saudis who were concerned that the decision will replace the full-length school uniform with sports outfits. These concerns resulted in a further announcement by the ministry in December stating that it had commissioned a special body to examine the options for a “sports uniform”.

Engaging in sports activities has been a topic of dispute among scholars, even if performed in gender-segregated areas. However, the majority of scholars agree that women should not be allowed into football stadiums. It is no wonder, then, that lifting the stadium ban on women was a bold step in the reform process. The first match to witness women spectators will be in Jeddah on Friday, January 12 and in Riyadh on Statuary, January 13.

Religious scholars have expressed diverse views regarding why women should not be allowed in stadiums or watch football matches. Mohammed Al-Arifi, a prominent religious figure with 20 million followers on Twitter, expressed his strong opposition against allowing women into football stadiums. He argued that women will lose their “modesty and composure” when they start cheering for their favorite teams.

Some religious scholars voiced their skepticism of the “real intentions” behind women’s interest in football matches. One scholar, Khaled Al-Mosleh, said that women can watch matches at home as long as they are genuinely interested in the match, and not in the “physique of male players”. Saad Al-Hajari, the former head of the Saudi government’s religious edict authority in the southern province of Assir, criticized women who watch football matches, arguing that they have no knowledge of the sport and that “they ought to be ashamed of themselves” for watching matches purely out of interest in male players.

In September 2017, Saad Al-Hajari was suspended from all religious activities following his remarks on the “limited mental capabilities” of women which angered many Saudis on social media. A few days later, the driving ban on women was lifted, followed by the announcement that women can enter football stadiums starting from January 2018.

Some religious scholars in Saudi Arabia have a tendency of being inconsistent. For the past few decades, there seems to be a recurrent pattern in which scholars deem something un-Islamic, only to consider it appropriate a few years later. This tendency became more and more apparent when scholars who strongly opposed phones, the internet and television became stars on TV shows with million of followers on Twitter. Scholars who oppose sports education and allowing women to enter stadiums remain silent today even though they are still active on social media.

Figure 2. Cartoon by Abduallah Jaber demonstrating the inconsistencies of religious scholars.

Allowing women into sports stadiums and encouraging their participation in sports in and out of the country will test this inconsistency even further. Saudis now are more skeptical of the credibility of religious figures who are fast in condemning and banning anything new as “un-Islamic”. This is a radical departure from the past few decades when the majority of the population took for granted what religious figures, official or amateur, have to say on almost everything. Breaking away from the absolute reliance on religious figures is becoming more visible everyday. This, in turn, is fostering an increased self-awareness among the youth who are breaking free from cultural and social restrictions that have no basis in religion.

From “Queens” and “Wrapped Candies” to Hashtag Activism

For a long time, there was a wide consensus among the Saudi population that a woman’s place belongs at home. The direct influence of religious figures played a key role in maintaining a patriarchal system that existed from home, all the way to governmental institutions.

In the past, Saudi women accepted this patriarchal system and navigated through it. Male dominance was considered normal due to the cultural, social and religious atmosphere at that time. Religious publications, sermons and school education used symbolic language and expressions to normalize the limited role of women and to explain the restrictions imposed on their movement.

Describing women as “queens” must have been one of the most widely used expressions until today. It was quite common to hear preachers as well as school teachers explain why women should not drive or work. To them, a “queen” does not need to earn a living or run errands. Women were told that their fathers or husbands will support them financially and their brothers or sons will drive them where they please.

This logic proved to be unconvincing as men did not easily fulfill these roles. The limited, and sometimes non-existent, financial support encouraged women to seek employment. Moreover, the reluctance and refusal of male relatives to offer transportation solutions resulted in the growing demand for foreign drivers (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. A cartoon by Abdullah Jaber from Makkah newspaper showing a woman dressed as a queen asking her son to drive her. The son replies, “no means no.” @jabertoon

Paradoxically, some male guardians allowed women to work only in gender-segregated environments, but did not object when they were alone in the car with a foreign driver. This contradictory logic made women realize that such laws, especially those imposed by their immediate family members, were not only illogical, but were also making their lives more difficult (see fig. 2).

Figure 2. A cartoon by Abdulrahman Hagid from Al-Jazirah newspaper. @hagid

The expression “queens” was used effectively to maintain the status quo of women and limit their movement. Now, such expression is ridiculed widely on social media as pictures of Saudi women waiting for their drivers are circulated using the crown/queen lens from Snapchat to demonstrate their struggles (see figs. 3 and 4).

Figure 3. Women waiting for their drivers.

Figure 4. Another photo with a crown lens showing a woman pushing a cart to transport a gas tank, usually used in Saudi homes for cooking.

“Wrapped candy” is another expression used to describe “modest” women. Those who are not considered modest are labelled “unwrapped candy”, alluding to the notion that unwrapped food is usually contaminated and not desired. This unusual expression was commonly used in the past few decades to justify the strict dress code women were encouraged to wear outside the home.

However, with the high number of youth among the Saudi population, more younger women are not adhering to the same strict dress code. Wearing colorful garments and not fully covering is not a welcomed sight everywhere else in the country. Therefore, some still consider the “wrapped candy” expression sensible and applicable to women today. It is no wonder, then, that a group of Saudi filmmakers and actors who produce the content of a popular YouTube channel “Telfaz11” comically explored the candy expression in this videos (from minute 06:20).

The growing number of Saudi women travelling abroad to pursue undergraduate or graduate studies helped in changing old perceptions and demanding change. Saudi women became more independent, increasingly aware of their rights and the importance of freedom of movement. Moreover, the reliance on social media allowed these women to communicate such ideas and helped them unify their voices and demands for change.

The year 2017 brought in promising changes for women. A royal decree issued in May 2017 allowed women to access public services and seek employment without the consent of their male guardians. Lifting the driving ban on women, which was approved in September 2017, will be in full effect in the summer of 2018. An infographic released in January 2018 by the Saudi Foreign Ministry on Twitter lists all of 2017 advancement in the field of women’s empowerment (see fig 5).

Figure 5. Women’s empowerment in 2017. @KSAMOFA

However, there are still some voices that remain skeptical. They argue that as long as the guardianship system is not abolished completely, women will always need some form of consent from their male guardians. There seems to be a grey area between law and implementation where restrictions on women still prevail. Indeed, some women do complain that a guardian’s approval is still needed despite the royal decree, which shows that implementation remains to be a problem in some sectors.

Allowing women to drive will left the restrictions imposed on women’s movement inside the country. However, women will still need their guardian’s approval to issue or renew their passport. The movement of women inside the country might have been eased, but their movement in and out of the country is still restricted without a guardian’s consent.

It is no wonder, then, that a hashtag on Twitter () has been trending for more than 500 days. In this hashtag, Saudi women from different age groups are calling for abolishing the guardianship system that is considered the root of the problem. Abolishing the system seems to be the most difficult step in the reform process. This is because an end to the guardianship system means an end to a long-standing tradition that will effect the private and public lives of both Saudi men and women.