Saudi Feminism: Between Mama Amreeka & Baba Abdullah

The Oslo Freedom Forum in Oslo, Norway was held this past week, the Havel Prize for Creative Dissent was awarded to three dissidents, with Manal Al-Sharif as one of them. This comes shortly after Al-Sharif was at TIME’s 100 Gala in New York, being honored as one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People In The World. Such events have given rise to a pattern – just as numerous pictures and videos of activists attending various conferences and receiving numerous awards surface, waves of criticism pour in. Motives are viewed with suspicion, worthiness is questioned, and a movements’ progress is reassessed.

The most prevalent criticism of Manal Al-Sharif was that she was accepting an award for political dissent when she was only, at most, a social activist. This criticism was not meant to knock her efforts, but to allocate them a bit further down the activist totem pole so to speak, removing them from the high pedestal they’d been placed on. One ought to note, however, that Manal herself stated at the Forum that, “I don’t consider myself a dissident, I had to actually ask what it was”. So, it seems, she may agree with her critics.

Well then, why was Al-Sharif being hailed as a dissident? This is what happens when women’s rights are treated as foreign rights to those of male citizens’. We now find ourselves caught in this grey area, is Manal Al-Sharif, a women’s rights advocate, a social or political activist? Is a woman driving a social act, thus allowing for the government’s claim that it’s a matter to be left to society, or is it a political act, meaning its dismissal by the government as an outright challenge to the state? To some observers, her act was political. It was in fact a challenge to the state. It is true that there was no law written that banned women driving, but governmental authority (and its established status quo) was still challenged nonetheless. What makes Al-Sharif’s critics reluctant, and perhaps rightfully so, to agree with this strictly political portrayal of her acts, is that the rhetoric she chose to accompany her actions was anything but political. Her Youtube videos had included praise to the King, emphasis on violating no laws in the Kingdom, and, more importantly, it claimed that it was a social taboo to be broken and nothing more. This sort of rhetoric maintains the established child-parent relationship that Saudi women have with the state. While talk of demanding full citizenship, a political demand, did come up in her campaign, it was still cloaked in a request that was social in nature. The campaign used the King’s face for its Facebook page, most official statements began by paying some sort of respect to the government. As a result, it is still a social issue. It was discussed in newspapers for months, opinion videos were posted, tweets were retweeted, but that was it.

The Right2Dignity campaign made an attempt to turn to the political when it filed a lawsuit against the Saudi Traffic Department for denying Manal Al-Sharif her driver’s license despite there being no written law against its issuance to a woman. Another Saudi activist, Samar Badawy, did the same. This was a head-on collision with the state; an outright demand for women’s right to drive that was already technically legal, rather than a demand for wishy-washy patrimonial supportive grants by the government. Unfortunately, the government has been skilled at bureaucratically stifling this legal maneuver. It also refused to allow any sort of legislation to pass affirming women’s right to drive, instead it entertained ridiculous studies on driving leading to loss of virginity. Yet, some might wonder why in the months to follow women were given the right to join municipal elections, work in lingerie shops, or join the Olympics? It was not contradictory of the Saudi government to make such ‘reforms’ and yet hold back on the decision to allow women to drive; it was actually being rather consistent. This is because “Baba Abdullah”, the father figure, granted those rights in the form of reforms, all as a method to reaffirm the child-parent relationship with Saudi women and discourage any efforts to make demands in a political manner.

So, does this mean Manal Al-Sharif didn’t earn her prize, was the Right2Dignity campaign a failure? In truth, I find the question itself to be posed falsely. The fact of the matter is that Manal Al-Sharif was an accidental activist. She never intended to be political. Jillian York writes of how Al-Sharif originally came up with the idea to post two Youtube videos in support of women driving in Saudi, it was simply a birthday dare she had given herself. Manal spoke of her unexpected role at the Oslo Freedom Forum in explaining, “Havel said, we never decided to be dissidents, we were transformed into them, without every quite knowing how. We sometimes ended up in prison, without ever knowing how. There are things in life, you don’t choose them, they choose you”. This sums up her story. Such unplanned action has implications, however, such as the fact that she did not start out with the vision of herself as an activist, nor was her family’s distress at her sudden arrest, and the amount of hate mail (including Shaik sermons) about her, things she had anticipated as a result of her drive. In such light, I think it’d be fair to show her a little compassion in judging the progress of her actions. She’d never intended to be a full-on activist, and so she cannot be assessed in terms of what characterizes a political dissident.

However, I sense that most of the criticism directed at Al-Sharif and her recently received award was not really about her, but about the exclusive focus media has given her. There is a deep sense of unfairness regarding its selectiveness. There is anger that the award is supposedly for dissent, when other Saudi dissenters find themselves forgotten in jail cells. There is anger for the political voices that are left unheard because they aren’t in the safe and social, preferably female and victim-looking, realm of Saudi activism. This blatantly apparent selectiveness in attention to certain types of activism can be viewed as allowing Saudis a revolt in a bubble. This bubble is what I’d labeled as ‘social’, because it never quite enters the political realm. It still operates within the child-parent relationship, rather than promote a citizen-state relation. It is the permissible revolt, the headlines that will not affect the price of oil. Unlike revolts in the Eastern Province which are far outside this bubble, and revolts after prayers in mosques that led to jail cells, revolts in opinion pieces that were written on ‘a little too much’ and soon removed from newspaper sites along with their authors being swiftly silenced, revolts in politically charged tweets whom their owner disappears shortly afterwards, revolts in stomachs that refuse to eat in protest of its arbitrary arrest. All these revolts… they are ignored. They do not receive any award. Though they deserve it more than any. And while women’s fight against discriminatory laws is also a revolt, in the specific case of Manal Al-Sharif, as I have argued, it was not that of a political dissident. Rather, it was morphed into a revolt within a state-controlled, social bubble.

Is it fair to demand more of Manal Al-Sharif? If her cause wasn’t political, does that rid it of all worth? Also, is the method a campaign chooses crucial, or should one be concerned with results alone? The answer to such questions lead to a somewhat heated discussion on Twitter among feminists, debating the implications and effectiveness of Manal’s social revolt. The different positions taken are crucial in understanding the fragmented Saudi feminist movement. I’ll loosely characterize each, simplifying their opinions somewhat, in order to show the main trains of thought I’ve observed to be adopted by most when considering feminism in the Saudi case.

Dr. Madawi Al-Rasheed is an academic; her arguments are typically based on political theory and historical fact. She views the feminist movement as lacking because it isolates women’s rights from others, and then proceeds by removing itself from the political altogether. She also views it as compromising its integrity as a local movement when it accepts awards or support in general from the West and she finds it hypocritical to do so when the West is who supports the governments who have discriminatory laws in the first place. Mona El-Tahawy is a media magnet, her words travel fast and her passion is for what is in the moment. She claims the feminist movement is successful at this point, since it has pointed to the misogyny of men and clerics towards women in Saudi Arabia. Her understanding of the fight for women’s rights consists essentially in affirming women as the Other who faces oppressive forces of misogynic readings of religion and male-dominated culture, and is in need of liberation. This liberation comes about often by the demonizing of forces that she deems oppressive and backwards, appealing to pathos and sympathy to support women’s efforts in doing so. With the ultimate end goal of liberation, Mona El-Tahawy rejects Al-Rasheed’s arguments as the ramblings of a theorist who betrays her noble objective of easing the harsh reality experienced by average Saudi women. The two debated their views on Twitter, the discussion deteriorated into a disagreement over who had lived longer in Saudi as a ‘real’ Saudi woman, and who was more compassionate despite their later privileged life abroad. At this point Ebtihal Mubarak joined the conversation; rejecting what she sensed as a desire to prioritize political rights or a belittling of Women2Drive in Al-Rasheed’s argument, but also rejecting what she viewed as El-Tahawy’s victimization of Saudi women.

I agree with Ebtihal Mubarak’s argument that rights ought not be prioritized, i.e. the demand for the right to drive ought not be dismissed as frivolous since it is still an injustice, and that this demand ought not be framed into a victim’s cry for help. But at the heart of the discussions that later erupted was, first, a question of whether Manal Al-Sharif was deserving such an award, i.e. was her campaign political and fitting to the title “dissident”, and second, a question of whether she ought to be accepting the award at all, i.e. when is outside support legitimate. I have previously addressed the issue of Manal Al-Sharif being given the award; I will now turn to the question of outside support. Madawi Al-Rasheed gave her own view on support from Western powers when she said, “the woman [i.e. the West] who honors you for calling for driving is the same one who kills the dream of women in many Arab countries”. Hutoon Al-Rasheed, a member of the Right2Dignity campaign, disagreed. The award was deserved, she claimed, because the act of a woman driving in Saudi Arabia was a sign of defiance. But, this does not answer our questions concerning outside support. It simply takes the award itself out of context. Mainly, is there a requirement to applaud every form of support given, regardless of its underlying meaning? Shouldn’t one seek to control the narrative forming around his cause as much as possible, as well as how the support received is framed?

Recently I have become painfully aware of the importance of narrative. The means any given campaign is willing to use to reach its end are of the utmost importance. And while I admire Madawi Al-Rasheed’s rejection of all things Western as part of a broader objection to governmental alliances, I view this stance as running against the fact that governments are moralless creatures, will always be self-interested, and thus it is pointless to expect of them any otherwise. Instead, the hypocrisy Al-Rasheed points to can be used to have one governmental power pressure another. But I’m also not in favor of Hutoon Al-Rasheed’s acceptance of all forms of support and outside pressure, because some support comes with a cost. This cost, or requirement, has recently been embodied in Mona Eltahawy’s last Foreign Policy article, “Why They Hate Us” (which I wrote a response to here), that basically allocates women the role of victims. It also voids injustices women face of its political nature, and solidifies her fight as one with the opposite sex, culture, and religion. And in this case I do not believe the ends, women’s civil rights, justifies the means, women’s rights becoming social issues. Not because the end is of any small value, but because it is the polar opposite of the proposed means.

Mona El-Tahawy argues that her approach is that of an opinion writer, poking in the hard places to spark conversation. And once this is done, results can be seen since it is brought to global attention. And while some enthralled with passion for results may dismiss my critique outright, I still believe a certain amount of responsibility must be assumed when writing narratives on causes. What is written today is what will be remembered tomorrow. Words narrate actions taken, and it’s crucial they do so in the most just way possible. Agitating in a manner that is void of theory is just as pointless as theorizing yourself into an isolated corner.

About a year ago, when I’d first joined twitter under Ana3rabeya, I did so after witnessing Tahrir, and being enraged at Manal Al-Sharif’s arrest. One of my feminist idols was Mona El-Tahawy; I found her fiery tweets and her countless appearances on CNN to be rather inspiring. At the time, I did not pay attention to details and my opinions were largely ridden of context. Now, how a Saudi woman’s fight in her own country is framed is crucially important to me. I simply cannot stand it turning into a sob-fest for victimized and oppressed women. I cannot stand the thought of the demand for an end to guardianship by calling on “Mama Amreeka” to save oppressed Saudi women from misogynic culture, or, conversely, calling on “Baba Abdullah” to protect Saudi women from a sexist society and extremist clerics. In both cases Saudi women remain a ‘special’ case, taking the position of a child. And if the means are carried out in such a way that coincides with the status quo, how proud are we to be of the results? When I participated in the online fervor for Manal Al-Sharif’s release during the 9 days she was in jail, I didn’t argue with people too much. I dismissed the relevance of narrative that was being created around me. My sole focus was Manal’s release. Occasionally, I would read a sexist comment or two against Saudi men, or all Muslim men, and I’d let it slide. I remember thinking: it’s sensational, but that’s what will work. Now, I see that you can’t do that. In doing so, I was using Saudi women as a means, by allowing her to play the role of victim, in order to achieve my goal. What good is a fight for dignity by first denouncing it and assuming the role of victim? What good is a fight for citizenship if it’s done against my fellow citizens?

This is how my view on feminism has changed. Agnes Heller highlights this different perspective on feminism in saying, “Women’s Studies do nothing more than put women back in the kitchen”. Meaning that, feminism which treats women as a social case of study, a feminism that is based on anything other than Pride and Power in the political realm, forever keeps her rights in the kitchen, i.e. the social realm. Thus leaving her at the mercy of those who will to care for her, rather than a citizen of the political realm who wills for herself. I realize one might argue at this point that I am a privileged woman, entertaining theory and detaching myself from the plight of ‘real’ Saudi women. But, to me, this accusation holds little in substance. I am a Saudi woman. I have experienced discrimination. I do seek change. And this is not a rejection of all outside support as a method for achieving change within. I am fully aware of the rise of social media activism and increased globalization of politics, I realize campaigns typically cannot succeed in isolation. But, this does not mean that I, or any other Saudi woman, must inevitably submit to every form of support she is offered. Nor does it mean that Saudi women must accept a narrative she does not approve of, or exploit theatrical methods of victimhood that undermine the full volume of personhood she wishes to achieve. Saudi feminism doesn’t have to be a story of “Mama Amreeka” coming to the rescue, or “Baba Abdullah” choosing to ‘grant’ her rights. Feminism based on Pride in its demand for civil rights, not Pity, is worthy of praise. Feminism based on Power in the face of an oppressive state, not timidness, is the aim.


Republished on Jadaliyya


7 thoughts on “Saudi Feminism: Between Mama Amreeka & Baba Abdullah

  1. Pingback: Saudi Feminism: Between Mama Amreeka and Baba Abdullah « Women and the Arab Spring

  2. سلام عليكم …اسمح لي في البداية ان اعرفك بشخصي ..اسمي طارق ومن مصر ..واهتم بالشئون الاقليمية والعالمية.دار في الاونة الاخيرة عندكم قضية اثارت الراي العام السعودي عندكم وهي قضية السماح للمرأة بقيادة السيارات ..واري قي ذلك ان القيادة الملكية عندكم تعمل لصالحكم ايتة النساء بالمملكة واري في ذلك تشريع لراحتكم قبل ان يكن تشريع نابع من تشبة النساء بالرجال وهو مايخالف شرع اللة ..فلو كنتن اخذتم هذا التشريع من زاوية الراحة لكن لكنتم ارتحتم وارحتم ..انما ماثير من زوبعة هو نابع من قياسكن بدول اخري تسمح بذلك ولايسمح لكن بالمملكة ..واقول انكن لو اخذتم انكم كشعب ..اقول هنا كشعب ولا أفرق بين جنس واخر ..انكم كشعب مصطفي عن سائر الشعوب لكون بيت اللة الحرام عندكم باراضيكم لكم خصائص تختلف عن سائر شعوب العالم….فخذوا ذلك لكم ولاتتشبهوابغيركم من الشعوب الاخري واقول هنا واكرر كشعب دون تميز عن جنس ..لاني اري ان بعضا من الشباب السعودي يتأثر بالغرب في اشياء مانزل اللة بة من سلطان…اعلموا ان لقيادة بلديكملكم كشعب تريدوا لكم الخير ..واتمني لكم كشعب من شعوب الدول الاسلامية كل ازدهار وتحضر ولسائر الشعوب العربية التقدم والرخاء ..والسلام عليكم ورحمة اللة ..

  3. Very thoughtful and pays attention to context, as you rightly state; something that discourse is devoid off.


  4. I only read your elaborate article today.
    Thank you for broadening my perspective on the feminist movement in Saudi Arabia. This last spring, on April 18, I wrote to Mrs. Manal al-Sharif a brief comment in response to her description of Hillary Clinton as a “true feminst in heart and soul”, as can be seen in this link

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