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Jack McGinn

December 18th, 2017

Saudi Women: Navigating War and Market

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Jack McGinn

December 18th, 2017

Saudi Women: Navigating War and Market

3 comments | 3 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

by Madawi Al-Rasheed

Saudi journalist Haifa al-Zahrani on the frontlines in Yemen

Women in Saudi Arabia will remember King Salman’s reign as a period that ushered two types of feminism, both variations on the previous state-led religious nationalism and cosmopolitan modernism, discussed in a previous publication. Salman came to be known as the ‘King of Decisiveness’, a title that replaced the ‘King of Humanity’, as King Abdullah came to be referred to. The shift to a masculine decisiveness has had important repercussions on women’s status and gender relations in the kingdom.

Since the foundation of the state in 1932, the Saudi regime has increasingly depicted women as guardians of the moral integrity of the nation, producers of future pious generations, keepers of tribal and Arab purity, and markers of the nation’s commitment to Islam. The state under King Faisal dealt with gender through the prism of religious nationalism, a homogenising paradigm that invoked common religious bonds between citizens, but at the same time introduced mass education for girls and depicted itself as a modernising force in society.

Under King Abdullah, the two contradictory frameworks for gender, namely religious nationalism and cosmopolitan modernity, coexisted and often collided. As a result, Saudi women were pulled in opposing directions and were caught in the competing visions in which their rights and citizenship could be comprehended and defined. Two camps thus emerged: Islamist and liberal women, each engaged in a fierce battle over their rights, while the majority of Saudi women did not fall within the boundaries of either of these well-organised groups. The majority remained oblivious to the internal battles within the women’s camp.

As a result of the increasing promotion of women in state narratives and the expansion of their role in the labour force, female employment rose to 21 percent in 2017. Specific programmes were introduced to boost women’s employment, for example the feminisation of lingerie shops and cashier jobs in supermarkets. The gradual shift from a state-centred capital economy to open liberal trade culminated in the appointment of several women to high-ranking positions in both the government bureaucracy and the Consultative Council, in addition to their election to Chambers of Commerce and public and private sector institutions and businesses. In 2015, women were finally allowed to participate in municipal elections as voters and candidates. While legal restrictions on women remained intact, like King Faisal before him, King Abdullah’s image as the emancipator of women was well established by the end of his reign.

Women themselves were active in endorsing this march to modernity. They articulated this through the expansion of publication of novels and literature, op-eds, and blogs. King Abdullah’s reign coincided with the advent of the internet, which initially brought an explosion in the proliferation of debating forums, personal blogs and later social media from Twitter to Facebook. During King Abdullah’s time, daring cosmopolitan women were tolerated and even celebrated as icons of modernity, progress, and achievement. Their voices found a niche in liberal forums, while similarly, Islamist women began to participate in Islamist forums alongside men.

The only women who were occasionally detained were those who incited other women to engage in collective action and mobilise against some of the restrictions, for example against the ban on driving or in support of political prisoners. As long as women dramatised their plight in fiction, and urged other women to call for representation in minor municipal elections or for greater job opportunities, they remained safe and even protected by the state. So Raja al-Sanea’s famous novel The Girls of Riyadh was endorsed by a government minister, who praised her for her courage and literary insight into unveiling the lives of young Saudi women. She did receive damning criticism and even calls to punish her by a consortium of Islamists and activists, accusing her of scandalising the city’s young women, but nevertheless she remained secure from harassment and even sold her novels at various Saudi book fairs.

After 2005, when women were excluded from the first municipal elections, academic and activist Hatoon al-Fasi organised a series of events to train women for political participation, raising awareness and calling for the inclusion of women in municipal politics in the context of the Baladi campaign. She ran an informal Sunday Women’s Group (al-ahadiyya) each month, to discuss women’s issues and mobilise them to demand more rights. Such mobilisation was tolerated as it endorsed gradual reform under the umbrella of the state rather than outside its remit. On the other side of the fence, women who called for an Islamic feminism and a return to ‘true’ Islam in which women had greater rights were also tolerated. Key to these allowances was that activists refrained from calling for more adversarial mobilisation such as demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes or civil action.

However, the situation was different when women activists abandoned their virtual resistance and moved to the real world. Among others, Wajiha al-Howeider, Manal al-Sharif and Lujain al-Huthlool, were arrested when they drove their cars in 2014–15, defying the ban on driving. This latest episode was reminiscent of the 1990 incident when around fifty women academics and professionals drove their cars in Riyadh before being taken to interrogation centres. Many of these women lost their academic jobs and were subsequently deliberately marginalised.

After the 2011 Arab uprisings, women who supported political organisations such as the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA), or who demonstrated against the indefinite detention of their male relatives, received harsh treatment at the hand of security forces. Such defiant women did not fit the modernity narrative that the state wanted to project. They were defined as either terrorists or sympathisers of terrorism. The state publicised the trial of famous women, for example those who were allegedly supporters of al-Qaida and the Islamic State in Iraq, in order to justify the detention of peaceful women activists who demonstrated in support of political prisoners.

With the arrival of Salman to the throne in January 2015, new paradigms around gender began to emerge in the context of the War on Yemen and the economic reforms introduced by the deputy crown prince.


Women and War

Since 2016, King Salman and his son, Crown Prince and Minister of Defence Muhammad bin Salman, endorsed a newly nationalistic masculinity during the War on Yemen. As the ‘King of Decisiveness’, his soldiers came to be known as rijal al-hadd (men of the border), and humat al-watan (defenders of the homeland), who sacrifice their lives to protect the country and its people. While this militaristic nationalism may appear to be overtly anchored in secular heroism, it was in fact built on sectarian nationalism, owing much to classic Wahhabi interpretations and their denunciation of Islamic heterodoxy such as Shiism and Zaidism, the sect of the Houthis, against whom Saudi Arabia launched their war in Yemen. The Wahhabi excommunication of the Shia and their many sub-branches is well-known. The regime’s sectarian nationalism was thus directed against the Houthi Zaidis and their Iranian backers.

The Saudi regime used famous religious scholars well-known for their sectarian agenda and hatred towards the Shia to inflame the spirit of jihad against the heretical Zaidi Shia in Yemen. Muhammad al-Arifi, a populist and popular Wahhabi cleric with over 20 million followers on Twitter was filmed on the battle ground, supplicating and blessing the armed forces defending the nation against the Yemeni Houthis, described as aggressors and heretics who are backed by the Safavid Iranians.

The less overtly religious Saudi press framed the conflict in Yemen in terms of simple Saudi nationalism, devoid of religious undertones. Writers in this press emphasised the need to protect the borders of the nation against Iranian backed infiltrators, often without highlighting the sectarian dimension in the conflict.

Women came to play an important role in this new militaristic nationalism, dubbed by Nora al-Doaiji as hazm, or decisiveness (see al-Doaiji’s chapter in the forthcoming Salman’s Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia). According to her, the name for this moment itself reflected this emphasis on a masculine nationalism with less religious focus. ‘Hazm’ stemmed from the state’s name for its ‘decisive’ war in Yemen, as well as the promotion of the term among the state and its supporters, marking this new king’s era as decisive and strong. She argues that it is in this context that unorthodox Saudi womanhoods could emerge under King Salman’s idea of the nation, but only to the extent that they furthered valorisation of the military and acted as new ‘hazm’ state feminists. Al-Doaiji gives the example of a Saudi female journalist who gained recognition by adopting this state-feminism through her coverage of the ‘Decisive Storm’ in Yemen, at the frontlines of the conflict. Journalist Haifa al-Zahrani was featured in Saudi media as she was photographed wearing a military-styled helmet and vest, even posing inside a military tank, playing into the militarised idea of nation and her ‘masculine’ feminist position in it. She argued publicly that she did not want to be ‘treated as a girl’ and ‘on the ground, she demanded to be treated like a man’. In asserting her ‘hazm’ state feminism, she declared that this was not because she was brave, but because she was ‘fulfilling a duty to the nation’. Her image on the battlefield chimes with the vision propounded by cleric Muhammad al-Arifi, albeit symbolising different aspects of Salman’s new sectarian and militarised nationalism. Salman’s militaristic nationalism is perhaps seen as an antidote to the Islamic State’s propaganda, which celebrates shocking violence and uses it as a conduit for recruitment. In both narratives, women tend to play a central role. ISIS’s female tax collectors in Raqqa and women-only ‘morality police’ squads are celebrated as an authentic ‘Islamic’ emancipation. Salman’s women on the battleground are his response, a rather far-fetched promotion of women’s rights in the context of war.


Women and Market

King Salman wanted to distance Saudi Arabia from ISIS and anchor the country as it undergoes a seismic economic shift, the success of which is bound to be linked in some way with real social change. In this economic shift, gender issues are as central in Saudi Arabia as they are in Western capitals and elsewhere. After becoming king, Salman immediately reappointed 30 women to Majlis al-Shura, thus honouring the pledge of his predecessor to empower women through representation in political bodies. He also issued a royal decree to restrict the powers of the Committee for Commanding Right and Prohibiting Vice, known as al-haya’a. Women celebrated their defiance in the face of al-haya’a by posting video-clips on YouTube in which they appear to chase Committee men from shopping centres, in a reversal of the typical roles.

In April 2016, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman introduced Vision 2030, a Western management consultant’s blueprint that shifts the state-centric Saudi oil capitalism towards a new liberal market economy, thus lessening Saudi Arabia’s dependence on a single commodity. The new blueprint, drawn up by McKinsey Global Institute, was followed by the implementation of a Saudi National Transformation Programme.

Vision 2030 combined old promises with new ones. The familiar elements included moves to replace foreign workers with Saudi citizens; the privatisation of some state assets; and promises to curb budgets and expand the non-oil sectors of the economy. Since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia’s policy has been expressed in a string of five-year plans, each promising a variation on this theme.

But there are also genuinely novel aspects, including the development of a $2 trillion sovereign wealth fund, paid for by oil revenues, the introduction of value-added tax, a 50–60% increase in energy prices, and a 200% increase in the cost of water. Most surprising was the decision to float 5% of Aramco, the huge Saudi Arabian state oil company, which provides around 10% of the world’s oil. It is a highly secretive company – but that will have to change if its shares are to be sold in global stock markets. Investors will want to know how much oil is still in the ground, and who ultimately controls the company. At present, the answers to these questions are state secrets.

One of the new initiatives in Vision 2030 is the establishment of a Commission for Entertainment to revive interest in culture and art. The first guests to be invited to Saudi Arabia for interviews were Oprah Winfrey and Al Pacino, news which inflamed the Saudi social media sphere with hashtags denouncing inviting a ‘whore’ and a ‘magician’. Many see the new Commission as a provocation given that after the recent restrictions al-haya’a is almost inactive. The conservative establishment presumes that immoral behaviour is set to run rampant now that the religious police can no longer patrol. Yet this ‘sphere of entertainment’ assumes that Saudis can afford to buy tickets and participate in such activities. This may prove difficult in the future as the population is yet to experience the full impact of the shrinking welfare state.

Madawi Al-Rasheed is Visiting Professor at the LSE Middle East Centre. In January 2017, she returned to the MEC from a sabbatical year at the Middle East Institute, the National University of Singapore. Previously, she was Research Fellow at the Open Society Foundation. She tweets at @MadawiDr

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Jack McGinn

Jack is the Communications Coordinator at the LSE Middle East Centre. He manages the blog and edits the paper series.

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