Saudi Arabia recently announced new laws which will allow women to apply for a passport and travel abroad without a male guardian’s permission. The laws will also allow women to independently register a marriage, divorce or a child’s birth and obtain official family documents.
These laws are part of a series of reforms which have weakened the Kingdom’s oppressive male guardianship system. Last year, women were granted the right to drive, lifting the world’s only ban on female drivers, but much of the change is superficial. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman still maintains a choke-hold on the politics of the Kingdom, and women’s rights activists are still being systematically silenced.
Bin Salman is said to be modernising the Kingdom through the Vision 2030 initiative, which aims to attract foreign investment by bringing Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy and ultra-conservative society more into line with liberal societies. The diversification of the economy and the curtailing of the powers of the religious police are reshaping the lives of women.
Vision 2030 aims to increase female participation in the Saudi workforce from 22% to 30%, and women in Saudi Arabia can now open and run businesses without the permission of a male guardian, and work in the hotel industry in the holy city of Mecca. It has also allowed women to attend public sporting events for the first time in three major cities in Saudi Arabia.
The building of a luxury resort on the Red Sea in the northern section of the Hejazi coast, another part of the initiative, will not only attract tourists, it will also offer women the liberty to wear bikinis at the pool and beach areas, but not all Saudi women will feel the effects of these reforms.
Just weeks before last year’s lift on the driving ban came into force, Saudi authorities arrested female activists who had fought for the right to drive and campaigned to abolish the male guardianship system. Loujain al-Hathloul was one of them, a leading women’s rights campaigner in Saudi Arabia who has shared the company of Meghan Markle.
She was arrested alongside other activists including academic, Azizah al-Yousef, and founder of the popular blog, saudiwoman.me, Eman al-Nafjan, who exposed how Saudi authorities were spying on citizens through social media apps. Yousef and Nafjan are amongst the activists who have been released on bail, whilst Hathloul remains behind bars. All three prominent activists reportedly suffered horrific torture in prison, including water-boarding, electrocution and sexual assault.
The Saudi authorities crackdown on women’s rights campaigners has been harsh, and it has been accompanied by the vicious silencing of dissent online. Bin Salman’s government has set up Twitter ‘troll farms’ to attack and intimidate dissidents, even paying a mole inside Twitter to keep tabs on exactly who was critical of Bin Salman’s regime.
Hathloul and fellow activist Nouf Abdulaziz al-Jerawi were targeted by troll armies, forcing the women to close down their Twitter accounts. Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, was also a victim of these troll armies. He had been critical of the male guardianship system and the ban on women driving, among other Saudi government schemes.
Manal al-Sharif is another prominent Saudi activist who was one of the leading figures in the Women to Drive Movement. She argued that the Saudi authorities ‘effectively shaped and moulded the Twitter discourse by buying trolls and bots’ used to harass and threaten activists. She has since shut down her Twitter account, stating that she did not feel safe on the app as the Saudi authorities used Twitter in a way that was ‘too authoritarian’ for her to continue her presence there.
Political liberalisation is not part of Bin Salman’s plan for Saudi Arabia. Women can now travel and drive without a male guardian, but the people who fought hardest for this change continue to pay a heavy price for speaking out against Bin Salman’s authoritarian regime.
The weaponisation of Twitter by the Saudi government ensures that women have no political voice in Saudi Arabia and Bin Salman’s reforms have not changed that.