Limits and deceptions behind the new freedoms for women in Saudi Arabia

The decisions of Saudi women must conform to those of their male guardian (REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri) (AHMED YOSRI/)

(From Riyadh, special envoy) “You’ll see when you get to Saudi Arabia. You won’t be able to get real impressions of what the Saudis think. Everyone is scared.”

The words of Lina al-Hathloul they resonate with every moment I spend in Riyadh. A month before traveling I contacted her to understand a little more about what life is like in this end of the world in the Arabian peninsula after the changes of recent years. Especially being a woman.

Stepping foot in Saudi Arabia as a woman is an experience that keeps you restless almost constantly. As soon as you get off the plane, you start to wonder if the clothes you’re wearing are loose enough, if there’s any skin showing, if it’s okay to have your hair loose and uncovered. The best thing is to go unnoticed, they told me.

The reality is that you can see everything: women with their hair loose, with hijabs, with abayas, but very few with burkas, although they explain to me that other, more conservative cities still tell another story. But here in Riyadh, the women seem to shine, gorgeous behind dresses and abayas of filmy, silky fabrics, and movie-star makeup.

Until recently, Saudi women enjoyed almost none of the freedoms that their peers enjoy in other parts of the world (Martina Putruele)

Lina told me that it is clear that the situation for women has changed in recent years, but it is not a structural change. “It is not a deep or robust transformation. And like any decision in the realm right now, it can be reversed in a day.”

Until recently, Saudi women enjoyed almost none of the freedoms that their peers enjoy in other parts of the world. This changed recently when the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) became the de facto leader, promising new opportunities for Saudi women as part of a sweeping modernization plan called Vision 2030.

To diversify her economy and attract investors and create more job opportunities, she had no choice but to loosen up a bit of the conservative culture that has kept most women close to home for years. Now women can drive and can work. As a result, in the last five years, the percentage of women working outside the home has risen from 18 to 32%according to official figures.

And along with this growth, the sexes begin to coexist in the public space: the segregation that kept men and women apart in restaurants, cafes and shops is slowly disappearing. Women can also go to the movies, concerts and certain sporting events, something unthinkable a short time ago. They can have their passports and travel alone. They do not have to wear an abaya or hijab, although they do need to dress “appropriately.”

“A few months ago, a woman was arrested for public indecency, because she thought she was allowed to wear what she was wearing, but a policeman felt that she was not dressed decent enough. Then, What is the benefit of having more rights if they are not protected?”Lina asks. “You are not granting rights, you are imposing new rules that not everyone can benefit from, and then you want to be thanked for changes that are not structural.”

Woman exercising in Riyadh (REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri)
Woman exercising in Riyadh (REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri) (AHMED YOSRI/)

It is that even today, in which there are more freedoms gained, personal choice is a luxury. The decisions of Saudi women must conform to those of their male guardian. That’s how it sums it up Hala Aldosari, a visiting fellow on gender, women’s health, and politics at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Aldosari, who campaigns and advocates for women’s rights and protection from violence in Saudi Arabia, was forced to escape in 2014 and is still living in exile.

What he says is not in vain. The guardianship system is still in forcewhich means that women depend on the permission and will of men -usually parents or husbands, but in some cases their own children- to marry and other important choices.

“It is true that more and more women are able to at least enjoy having a coffee and meeting friends. They don’t necessarily have to adhere to a strict dress code where you have to cover yourself up,” she tells me, gesturing to her opulent, bare hair from her Washington, DC home. “But they do suffer from sexual harassment, and from problems that exist in a society that used to be very conservative and is still transitioning to a more open place.”

And enforcement of anti-sexual harassment laws remains vague. “We don’t know how the government is dealing with this, because women are often hesitant to report what happened to the authorities, because they may question her about how she was dressed or in which she spoke, or because of family pressure: such Maybe her relatives won’t let her leave the house anymore or dress in a certain way. Many of the women who could be sexually abused in workplaces or in public spaces may not be willing to come forward and report the incidents or, if they did, would not speak publicly about it because the government is very sensitive to the image public. They end up being harassed by the system. Because there is an obsession with maintaining a perfect public image”.

The activists, to prison

Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul (REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri/File Photo)
Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul (REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri/File Photo) (AHMED YOSRI/)

Loujain al-Hathloul is a women’s rights activist who was arbitrarily detained in 2018 for exercising her right to freedom of expression and pushing for women to drive, something MBS was already about to allow. She was imprisoned for three years, suffered torture and sexual harassmentand today finds his freedom of movement restricted by a five-year travel ban.

In 2021, she wrote in a research article that “women’s empowerment is not just about improving statistics, but it must give women the power to influence their environment. For women in the region, a related short- and long-term imperative is that women not be used to embellish a country’s image at the expense of their true empowerment.

Loujain is Lina’s sister.

Lina, who is also an activist, fought hard for the release of her Loujain, and serves as director of monitoring and communications for ALQST, a non-profit organization that promotes human rights in Saudi Arabia. Today he lives in exile.

He told the story of his sister’s ordeal countless times, and this time when he talks to infobae won’t be the last

“At the beginning of 2018, my sister was kidnapped in the Emirates, where she lived. She was stopped by the police on the freeway, they blindfolded her and took her back to Saudi Arabia by plane. They interrogated her for a couple of days and then they released her and prohibited her from leaving the country. Two months later they broke into her home in Riyadh and took her away. She was forcibly disappeared for almost a month.”

Women finally entered the labor market (REUTERS / Ahmed Yosri)
Women finally entered the labor market (REUTERS / Ahmed Yosri) (AHMED YOSRI /)

“Then he was in a secret prison for a few months…it was actually a torture center. for months she was electrocuted, whipped, drowned, and sexually harassed. She was later indicted on terrorism charges. She is a human rights activist and was in contact with International Amnesty Y Human Rights Watch. Saudi Arabia considers any kind of activism to be terrorism.”

Although she was released, she is not allowed to leave the country. Neither her nor her family. “That’s not freedom,” says Lina. “You are constantly looking back, thinking that you can say the wrong thing and they can come at any moment to arrest you again. He lives in a constant state of fear in a slightly bigger prison, but a prison nonetheless.”

Social networks become a danger

In August, Nourah al-Qahtani, a mother of five in her 40s, was recently jailed for 45 years for using Twitter to “defy” the country’s king and crown prince. A few days before, Salma al-Shehab, a PhD candidate at Britain’s University of Leeds, had been sentenced to 34 years in prison for “assisting dissidents who sought to disturb public order” by retweeting their posts. Tweets and retweets. That alone was enough to condemn these women.

The Saudi authorities have carried out 122 executions so far in 2022according to data from Al Qstthe human rights watchdog run by Saudi exiles. In March alone, they executed 104 prisoners, including 81 in a single day.

The fear is so pervasive that a missed social media post or private message can lead to arrest. This is why Saudis, especially women, are extremely careful.

It is that MBS lives in a state of constant paranoia. “He has the constant fear of not being accepted, or of being rejected, or that there will be dissent,” Lina analyzes. “So anything that is connected to the popular will, to what they think about how society should be, makes them feel afraid, and they seek to stabilize their power and their position by generating more fear.”

“Then go to these activists who have been applauded and considered reformists for advocating for women’s rights and sees it as a negative. What he wants is to be credited for legitimacy. That is why they silence dissenting voices. They don’t want a civil society.”

Along with this growth, the sexes are beginning to coexist in the public space: the segregation that kept men and women separated in restaurants, cafes and shops is gradually disappearing (REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri)
Along with this growth, the sexes begin to coexist in public space: the segregation that kept men and women separated in restaurants, cafes and shops is gradually disappearing (REUTERS / Ahmed Yosri) (AHMED YOSRI /)

There is almost no platform to talk safely anymore. I communicate with activists through an encrypted app where messages are deleted within a day.

“There is almost no social debate” says Lina in a voice message. When there is a scandal, for example of pedophilia, or the beating of women, people start to return to Twitter, but with anonymous accounts that try to ensure their security as much as possible.

Many of these women are not activists, Hala account. “They are simply women expressing their opinions or retweeting messages calling for the release of women activists and certain political prisoners. They gave a woman 34 years for supporting the release of a political prisoner who has almost no followers. will have about a hundred So you see all kinds of random acts of repression that become systematic. This undermines people’s belief in the system.”

“Saudi Arabia was never democratic but we used to have a margin that we used to maneuver politically,” he recalls. abdullah alaoudhDirector of Research for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at DAWN, a non-profit organization founded by Jamal Khashoggi which promotes democracy, the rule of law and human rights for all the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa. “It was an oppressive country, but not at the level that we are seeing in recent years, of persecuting dissidents.”

Now women can drive and can work (REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed)
Now women can drive and can work (REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed) (REUTERS/)

With regard to women, she clarifies, “we must not be fooled by all this empowerment of women and female emancipation. It’s just a stupid dumb narrative for the government’s PR campaign. What empowerment is there if he jails the most prominent women human rights defenders?”.

“And yes, she lets you go to a stadium, but if one of them dares to tweet something from an anonymous account, she will be arrested and sentenced to 45 years. They are superficial changes that mean nothing if there is no freedom of expression”.

Abdullah’s father is Salman al-Odaha well-known personality in Saudi Arabia, who at one point had one of the most popular TV shows, and has a few 13 million followers On twitter. He is currently behind bars in subhuman conditions five years after being arrested for an innocuous tweet encouraging the government to end its diplomatic standoff with Qatar, while 19 members of his family are barred from leaving the kingdom.

“My father was arrested in 2017. He has a lot of influence, and MBS is obsessed with Twitter. My father during the Arab Spring supported the possibility of freedom and democracy in neighboring countries. MBS spoke with him and wanted to convince him that there is no corruption. MBS then told him that it is not governed with the love of the people but with fear”.

In Riyadh, both men and women are very reticent to give opinions. If they talk about the rights of women and the LGBT community, they change the subject, act distracted or get defensive. Some actually support the monarchy and still maintain a conservative mindset. Most, especially young people, are simply afraid, but support women having the same rights as men.

“The fundamental rights of women are still not protected. They are still at the mercy of a man,” says Lina. “It’s opening up more and more, it’s true, but for now, the change is not real.”

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