Women’s news

The Truth About Women’s Empowerment In Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has received undeserved praise for its efforts towards women’s empowerment. Take a closer look and you will see that much of the progress made by women is limited or specious. Meanwhile, the authoritarian state continues to crack down on women’s activists with harsh jail sentences.
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Muslim woman

Veiled Muslim woman walking in the street on back view © NeydtStock / shutterstock.com

December 15, 2023 05:26 EDT
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Recently, Saudi Arabia has garnered praise for its efforts towards women’s empowerment. This sentiment has resonated not only in academic circles but also among those I know personally. More often than not, I find myself irked, sometimes even incensed. The discourse surrounding Saudi Arabia’s purported progress in women’s empowerment often overlooks a complex reality.

It glosses over human rights infringements, especially those concerning women. This raises questions about the authenticity of the reforms. A notable number of people seem to unquestionably embrace the image Saudi Arabia has meticulously curated for Western media consumption. Outlined and elaborated below are several reasons why the purported changes seem questionable.

Saudi Vision 2030

Launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016, the Saudi government embarks on an ambitious modernization odyssey with Vision 2030. Saudi Arabia developed the plan based on recommendations from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. This vision aims, among many things, at gender reform. While I perceive it as a marketing gambit, the stated goal is to amplify women’s influence in the Saudi socio-economic landscape. This places women as crucial catalysts for economic and societal transformation. 

In 2018, women were only 15% of the Saudi workforce. The agenda makes bold pronouncements about women’s empowerment. It is aiming to elevate women’s labor market participation from 22% to 30% by 2030. In line with these promises, the labor participation of Saudi women has indeed shot up dramatically. At face value, these strides seem commendable. However, dig a tad deeper, and the narrative shifts.

An insightful dissection of the labor market data highlights the increase of Saudi women in historically male-dominated sectors like retail, food and manufacturing. However, a recent analysis of this trend reveals a troubling detail: Numerous women are shoehorned into roles with ambiguous parameters, grueling hours and low pay. Quite frequently, they’re merely stepping into the shoes of unskilled migrant workers in tenuous positions. Is this the empowerment we laud?

Are typical Saudi women genuinely represented?

Certainly, the nation has witnessed a series of unprecedented moves. Women are ascending to higher government positions. This includes the recent inaugural appointments of a female Deputy Minister of Labor, the first Saudi female ambassador being dispatched to the US and a cadre of ten women assuming pivotal roles at the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques. While the nation has witnessed a series of unprecedented developments, it is crucial to question whether these women genuinely represent the typical Saudi female. 

Frequently, these appointments emerge from privileged and affluent circles. For instance, take Princess Reema bint Bandar, the ambassador appointee. She is a member of the Saudi Arabian royal family; the daughter of a former ambassador to the US who held the position for an extended period. Often, members of the royal family have unique opportunities and responsibilities that set them apart from others. Her status and background automatically distinguish her from average Saudi women. 

Riding into freedom

Additionally, noteworthy reforms such as the ending of the female driving ban and the revision of male guardianship laws have undeniably captured global admiration. Saudi women have fought since the 1990s to get the driving ban lifted. In 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented the lifting of the ban as an effort to improve and diversify the economy. Then, the driving ban was finally lifted on June 24, 2018, granting licenses to as many as 40,000 women in the first seven months.

The recalibration of the guardianship laws allows women over 21 amplified autonomies in areas like education, healthcare, employment and travel. However, they do still need a male relative’s permission when it comes to significant life choices such as marriage and getting a passport to leave the country.

These changes appear to signify increased freedoms for Saudi women, shaping a new societal framework and, importantly, enhancing Saudi Arabia’s global image–particularly in the eyes of Western beholders. However, a discerning eye might view many of these reforms as artful, yet superficial public maneuvers. The widely praised granting of driving rights to women can be interpreted as institutionalized tokenism, especially when the broader political and civil rights landscape for Saudi women remains lacking in progress. The irony is palpable, several women who championed the driving ban continue to languish behind bars.

Saudi Arabia’s overarching control

The state’s authoritarian influence significantly limits collective resistance. Journalists and activists face imprisonment. In some cases, they also face execution for sharing opposing views on online platforms. Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, a Saudi citizen whose details are barely known, was given a 45-year sentence for social media posts. Following that is Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University scholar who received 27 years in prison for Twitter activism. These are chilling reminders that challenging the prevailing authorities risks one’s freedom and stresses the severe consequences women may face.

Loujain al-Hathlou, a Saudi women’s rights activist, is also a poignant example. Saudi authorities held her for 1,001 days. Her ostensible transgression? Advocating against the prohibition on women drivers and the male guardianship system. She faces a series of charges that include non-violent acts of dissent, ranging from peaceful protests to engaging in social media activism. All these are perceived as seditious in the eyes of the kingdom. The kingdom’s stance resonates with stark clarity: We dictate the changes; you don’t demand them.

True empowerment

The contrast between external perceptions and local realities underscores the importance of telling the difference between the polished facade presented by the state-led initiatives and the genuine struggles and triumphs of Saudi women striving for empowerment. All too often, Saudi women are depicted in binary extremes, either as victims awaiting rescue or as exceptional individuals breaking barriers with governmental anointing as the ‘first’ in their field. Real empowerment for Saudi women is rooted in their intrinsic agency and tenacity, not granted as a mere favor from the state.

Faced with such adversity, the response of many Saudi women diverges. Some people contemplate an expatriate life to freely express critiques on the gender dynamics of Saudi Arabia. Others, fueled by an indomitable spirit, tirelessly champion gender transformation from within their society, shaping the concept of empowerment on their own terms. In Saudi Arabia’s socio-political landscape, the true measure of women’s empowerment will not lie in orchestrated changes but in the organic evolution of women’s rights and roles, as championed by the women themselves.

[Stephanie Verroya edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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