Saudi Arabia: A Trailblazer for Women’s Rights?

The idea of Saudi Arabia marketing itself as the new face of feminism in the Arab world is, in a word, obscene.

Lina Al-Hathloul discusses the detention of her sister, women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, during “Justice for Jamal: The United States and Saudi Arabia One Year After the Khashoggi Murder” in September 2019. (POMED / Flickr)

Unable to wash away the reputational bloodstains from the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and with the war in Yemen having become a quagmire from which the Biden administration wants to extricate the U.S., Saudi Arabia has come up with a new plan to appeal to the American people: marketing itself to Middle America as the Arab world’s trailblazer for women’s rights. Yes, you read that right. Women’s rights!

To this end, Saudi Arabia has moved an enormous amount of its lobbying focus—1,000 of nearly 2,000 lobbying contacts it made during 2020— from the Washington Beltway to the Midwest, where it presumes its reputation is less tainted, and hired PR firms to tout the achievements of Saudi women.

In November 2019, the regime beefed up its contract with the PR firm LS2group—paying them $1.5 million a year. Located in Des Moines, Iowa, the company has deep ties to the Republican Party and Big Oil, and in the past helped the Saudis lobby against 9/11 victims who wanted to sue the kingdom for its connections to the hijackers.

The strategy of the LS2group has been to reach out to Middle America by subcontracting to other companies or consultants in states such as Indiana, South Dakota and Colorado, and to highlight the regime’s “enlightened” policies toward women. A slick pamphlet put out by LS2group for the Saudi Embassy features a woman on a bicycle (how enlightened!) and describes the kingdom’s “great progress in the area of women and sports,” including the licensing of women’s gyms, physical education in schools, and women being given access to stadiums. Throughout the pamphlet are images of women running and cycling, looking carefree and empowered.

A key element of this propaganda campaign is the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., Princess Reema bint Bandar—the first woman to serve as Saudi ambassador to any country. The daughter of a famous Saudi diplomat, and having grown up in the United States, she is known for having pushed for women’s access to sports in Saudi Arabia. At public events in the United States, such as a recently held private Zoom meeting hosted by Philadelphia’s World Affairs Council, she framed Saudi Arabia as playing a pivotal role in transforming global women’s rights.

The idea of Saudi Arabia marketing itself as the new face of feminism in the Arab world is, in a word, obscene. In reality, despite some recent changes, Saudi women are still struggling for even the most basic of human rights. This is due, in large part, to the male guardianship system in which every Saudi woman must have a male guardian—normally a father or husband—who has the power to make a range of critical life-transforming decisions on her behalf.

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Until recently, women in Saudi Arabia did not even have the right to drive. After a decades-long campaign led by brave Saudi women and their supporters, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), granted women the right to drive in 2018. But immediately upon doing so, he rounded up some of the very women who had campaigned for the change and put them in prison. By doing this, he sent a chilling message to every woman in the country that change would not come from activism but by his decrees, and that the price for activism would be steep.

Loujain al-Hathloul has been paying that price, as she was one of the women arrested after MBS granted women the right to drive. Al-Hathloul gained notoriety in 2013 when she posted videos of herself on social media in an act of civil disobedience: driving a car. She was first arrested in December 2014 after attempting to drive from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia. She spent 73 days in prison but that did not stop her. On May 15, 2018, a group of armed men from the state security agency raided her family’s house and arrested her.

For the first three months of her detention, she was held incommunicado with no access to her family or a lawyer. According to the communication she was later able to have with her family, during those three months she was beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder.

On February 10, 2021, after a total of 1001 days, al-Hathloul was finally released from prison. Her release, however, does not grant her full freedom as she may not leave the country and can be re-arrested at any time.

Her release is also in no way evidence that Saudi Arabia is attempting to expand women’s rights. Rather, it was the campaigning by her family, friends and human rights groups around the world that finally led MBS to realize that it was in his best interest to release her. The day al-Hathloul was released, President Biden called her “a powerful advocate for women’s rights” and said that “releasing her was the right thing to do.” On March 10, 2021, a Saudi court rejected an appeal by al-Hathloul to change her sentence so that she would be able to travel freely. 

In another move to show progress for women’s rights, on August 1, 2019, Saudi Arabia announced with great fanfare that it would be abolishing a part of its male guardianship system by granting women over the age of 20 the right to obtain passports and travel, report births and deaths, and obtain family identification cards without the need for male authorization.

While this was rightfully applauded, it certainly was a low bar in terms of women’s rights. And Saudi Arabia did not abolish its entire male guardianship system. Saudi women still:

  • need the permission of a male guardian to marry and need to present justification and be granted the permission of a male judge to get a divorce (men are permitted to divorce without justification or a hearing);
  • face enormous discrimination regarding child custody and laws regarding unwed mothers. In court cases, a woman’s testimony is worth only half that of a man’s; women can lose custody for such conditions as not dressing modestly enough, for working full time or getting remarried;
  • can face legal charges for disobedience to their male guardian or husband and may be put in detention facilities where they are unable to exit without the permission of their male guardian or sponsor;
  • are only 23 percent of the labor force, and are mainly employed in education and public health;
  • are discriminated against in hiring processes and then have to endure gender segregation in the public sector workplace where the majority of the employment lies; this results in limited access to opportunity in the workplace as the male section is nearly always where decisions are made;
  • face abuse and violence, and men who abuse or even kill women face little to no legal recourse. Saudi Arabia is the last remaining country in the world without a codified personal status law (family law). This leaves the fate of women’s rights in the hands of the individual judge’s own interpretation—and all judges are male. So domestic violence is often overlooked or downplayed, and men are protected.

The case of Samar Badawi illustrates the challenges of being a woman in Saudi Arabia. Badawi took her father to court for refusing to allow her to marry, charging him with adhl (violating Islamic law by forcibly keeping her single). The Jeddah General Court ruled in her favor but her father also took her to court for “disobedience” after she fled his home to seek refuge in a domestic violence shelter.

After a number of court cases and arrests, she was last taken into custody again in 2018. Despite the reforms to the Saudi male guardianship system and despite her receiving the 2012 U.S. Department of State’s International Women of Courage Award, she has still not been released from prison.

Not only must Saudi reforms be seen as disingenuous when the very women who fought for them remain imprisoned, but the reforms that have been enacted are riddled with loopholes.

Though Saudi Arabia is now allowing women to obtain passports, the country has not eliminated its “taghayyub” system, a legal provision that prohibits women from traveling alone without permission. Male guardians can file complaints with the police that their female relatives are absent and this can result in the woman being arrested and put in detention. According to Human Rights Watch, male guardians can even stop the adult women in their charge from getting a passport with an easily granted request to the court. None of this is mentioned in the LS2group’s pamphlet on Saudi Arabia.

This isn’t the kingdom’s first attempt to distract the world from its abuses. In 2016, Saudi Arabia came out with Vision 2030, a framework to reduce the nation’s dependence on oil and rebrand the country as a modern, reforming state. To this end, they have been holding concerts, sporting events, and ramping up their tourism and entertainment sectors.

Take Action

Peace and human rights groups have launched (and won) numerous campaigns to prevent Saudi Arabia from successfully distracting from its human rights abuses and the brutal war it is waging in Yemen. These groups have succeeded in convincing entertainers to cancel their engagements; they have pressured business people to forego lucrative deals or attend Saudi gatherings; they have shamed PR firms into ceasing to represent the regime.

Now one of the targets is the LS2group, with a call for them to drop Saudi Arabia as a client. Saudi women have fought too hard and sacrificed too much to be used as a prop in the kingdom’s campaign to divert the world from its backward, oppressive and murderous rule.

Sign the petition and urge LS2group to drop the government of Saudi Arabia.

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About and

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection.
Ariel Gold is the national co-director and Senior Middle East Policy Analyst with CODEPINK for Peace.