In the last year the world has witnessed a bit of restlessness and a will for change in Saudi Arabia, a highly traditional and conservative country. From the Women2Drive campaign in the first half of 2011, to King Abdullah agreeing to let women take part in council elections, baby steps are being made toward allowing women greater participation in society. While the changes are modest at best, there does appear to be a greater challenge of the status quo, compared to prior years, and a drive to begin a discussion about a gradual transformation. A recent CNN piece about men’s guardianship laws over women in the Kingdom, takes into account various women’s thoughts about their perspective on living in Saudi society. The picture that emerges, as the women share their ranging stances on progress, is one that resembles the broad spectrum of women’s views across other cultures and eras, proving that there are always those who welcome reform, as well as, those who prefer to preserve old conventions.
The article introduces us to Ms. Badawi, a 30 year old woman who was jailed for 7 months because she ran away from her father’s house to a women’s shelter, violating Saudi laws, which forbids women from engaging in a range of activities without a male family member’s approval. Despite being unmistakably an adult in age, a mother and having undergone years of physical abuse by her father, she was punished for being a disobedient daughter when her father brought suit against her. She says that surviving those tough months in jail ultimately brought her what she wanted, having her guardianship transferred to her uncle and winning a case she brought against her father for not letting her get married. Her experience though has not turned her into an opponent of the guardianship laws, rather she wants women to be aware of the laws that exist to protect them. CNN quotes Ms. Badawi saying: “The problem is that there is no legal culture here. Women here, from various backgrounds, aren’t aware of their rights, there is no awareness. That’s why I wish that law would be taught in schools from an early age.” Subsequently, for this woman simply claiming her rights de jure and challenging the society at large to actually implement its laws fairly, is already revolutionary.
Ms. Badawi’s sentiment about the laws that effectively keep her a minor, regardless of age, is not lost on Rawda Al Youssef, who is the woman behind the “My Guardian Knows What’s Best For Me” campaign. She believes in the current system and thinks that its design serves the essential nature of men and women, a “complementary relationship and not an equal relationship” keeping familial ties and responsibilities as a cornerstone of Saudi society. Al Youssef goes onto complain about the fact that it is only wealthy women who boast about needing more women’s rights, while not hearing the voices of what poor women may need. Certainly, women of lesser economic means will have numerous concerns that may be foreign to the wealthy but assuming that poor women refuse to seek more liberties for themselves is as at least as presumptuous a notion, as Al Youssef’s caricature of wealthy women’s disinterest for poor women’s needs. Women like Najla Hariri and Samar Fatany are two women who think that it is high time to seize the moment and fight for reforms, for which their society might actually be ready for. Hariri was one of the women who dared to drive, only to be humiliated when both her and her husband had to sign a legal pledge that she would not get behind the wheel again. Fatany was revolutionary in her own way, when 3 decades ago she was one of the first women who began to work for the government, and remains employed today as a radio journalist and writer.
Reading the ranging views of Saudi women, it is impossible to not notice how the varying arguments resemble conversations about what is good for women in societies that are far less traditional. It is a constant across the world; women don’t all agree on what is good for women and often in the fight for women’s rights it is other women, not necessarily men, who are opposed to certain social transformations. Since women’s ideas about gender and their own situation is spread over a wide spectrum, from Phyllis Schlafy, Al Youssef to Gloria Steinem, bell hooks and further to Elisabeth Badinter, to just name a few, to assume that all women want the same things is almost insulting. Clearly women may have similar experiences, across time and cultures, but it is impossible to have any one woman speak for all others. Those who are concerned with women and their wellbeing should ultimately be asking how to improve life for all women by acknowledging the wide range of perspectives and allowing each one to make their own decisions. Unfortunately, Saudi society does not currently allow women, or men, who harbor more modern views, to live according to their own conscience, in their own country. So while the leader of the “My Guardian Knows What’s Best For Me” campaign is fulfilled and has had a positive experience with the status quo, upholding the current laws marginalize others, like those who ran the Women2Drive campaign or people who would like to see women enjoy various others freedoms. In a freer society, where women are not treated like minors their entire life, Al Youssef could continue to live with men in her family, tending to her various affairs, if that is what she is comfortable with, at the same time that another woman has the ability to make her own decisions, to drive or travel, without involving a male relative.
Rigid conservatism which dictates a single, undeviating path for all is worrisome in any society, but in Saudi Arabia it is all the more troubling because it outright infantilizes half of the population, leaving women at the mercy of men. It wouldn’t be fair to sweep Saudi women’s rights under the proverbial cultural rug, saying that rights are by all means relative and have no place in certain contexts, because in this very moment there are Saudi women who are indeed standing up for reform. Some campaigns for a transformation of Saudi society are official, like Women2Drive, but others, less formal ones, waged by female artists like Manal Al-Dowayan, are also blazing a trail to greater openness. The activists pushing for change must contend with constant discouragement and arguments against their efforts, just like activists always have across the globe; being told that their king has no desire for reform or hearing that the way women are treated in Saudi society is a testament to how respected, spoiled, cherished and protected by men they are. A cleric interviewed for the CNN article went as far as to say that “Men are slaves for women today,” and that not having women drive or take care of affairs outside the home is an effort to make women’s lives easier, “We want to lessen these burdens on the women.” Responses to women’s hunger for greater autonomy like those of the cleric are hardly different from ones we have grown accustomed to closer to home, in our own cultures. Not permitting women to make choices about reproduction has been marketed at times as a way of easing a burden, a shield from some terrible guilt that a woman may feel after an abortion for example. Apparently, to those who stand in the way of women’s rights, nothing communicates respect to women like treating us as if we are perpetual children, unable to make our own decisions, and not being allowed to live with the positive or negative consequences of our actions as adults.