A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Eiynah, a woman of Pakistani descent who grew up in Saudi Arabia, on her podcast, Polite Conversations. Among the variety of topics that we had the pleasure of discussing, she raised the question of feminism in Saudi Arabia.
Feminism is important. Women everywhere face a variety of obstacles to equality and security. Feminism has different priorities in different places, takes on different language and justifications. It is multifaceted and complex.
In Saudi Arabia, one of the issues that feminists tackle is male guardianship. By law, a woman needs permission from a male guardian to marry, travel, secure release from jail, and renew a passport. In practice, women need male consent for a variety of other decisions and activities. Male guardianship normalises the dehumanisation of and control over women. It robs women of agency, and it fails to protect them from abuse.
To illustrate the toll male guardianship can take, in 2013, a woman named Hanan Al-Shehri committed suicide by self-immolation because despite her many attempts, she could find no recourse to protection or escape from an abusive guardian.*
As a form of forced dependency, male guardianship has been compared to slavery, and one of the hashtags used in the Twitter campaign against the system is #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen.
During the podcast, Eiynah brought up a recent article published by CNN about two Saudi women who sought asylum in the US. The article explores reasons for fleeing Saudi Arabia, from the desire to enjoy equality before the law made impossible by male guardianship and other restrictions on women’s rights, to the fear of execution for atheism.
The women featured in the article have faced a torrent of insults and criticism online.
It is difficult to distil anything coherent from this morass of verbal abuse, but one criticism did come up that deserves to be taken seriously: in a word, Saudi feminism is exclusive and leaves behind those who suffer from what are perceived to be far worse human rights abuses in the country.
In more than a word, the criticism hinges on what is seen as a flippant use of the word, “slavery”, which minimises the experiences faced by migrant workers in Saudi Arabia seen as a closer approximation to enslavement. How can you compare male guardianship to slavery when the treatment of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia is an actual form of slavery?
Migrant workers, both men and women, face a multitude of human rights abuses. If they get paid, they are paid a pittance. Their passports are sometimes illegally confiscated by employers. Stringent travel requirements can prevent them from leaving the country. Some face abuse of all kinds – psychological, physical, sexual – at the hands of their employers. Employment laws fail to protect them. The experiences they face more closely approximate modern understandings of slavery as forced labour for little to no wages.
In light of this, the criticism in question of the movement against male guardianship and Saudi feminism seems to me to be twofold. First, calling male guardianship a form of enslavement diminishes the actual enslavement of migrant workers. Second, the movement against guardianship and other restrictions on women’s rights, like the driving ban, is too exclusive and fails to extend Saudi feminism to the gross human rights abuses faced by migrant workers (particularly women migrant workers) in Saudi Arabia.
But to diminish the experiences of some by comparing them to the experiences of others is a slippery slope. At what point, then, will the fight for the rights of migrant workers be disparaged in favour of a cause evaluated as more urgent or unjust? And who gets to make that decision? If followed through to its logical conclusion, the argument that underpins these claims risks diminishing the abuses faced by migrant workers. And atheists. And Shia. And LGBTQ. And children. And every other marginalised group in Saudi Arabia that the legal system fails to protect.
It is not necessary to diminish one fight – and degrade its fighters – in favour of another. Both the plight of Saudi women suffering under male guardianship and the plight of women migrant workers in Saudi Arabia are important, as are the many other fights not covered in this brief blog entry.
I don’t know what exact steps need to be taken to make feminism in and around women’s issues in Saudi Arabia more inclusive. One approach might be to encourage coordination between people fighting for, ultimately, the same goal: namely, the rights of women, regardless of nationality or age or any other arbitrary feature, to equality and protection before the law. And this goal goes hand in hand with dismantling the power structures that enable the marginalisation of women and other groups.
There is an overwhelming amount of work that needs to be done, and one individual cannot take on every cause. Many individuals can. Dialogue, rather than an isolated series of diatribes on both sides, is essential to any movement toward making feminism more inclusive.
Perhaps, a polite conversation would be a good place to start.
Listen to the Polite Conversations podcast here. The interview will be posted this week.
*The woman’s story took Twitter by storm when it happened, and the Saudi Gazette reported on the incident. The story has since been removed from the Saudi Gazette’s website, but the original text is preserved here.
**This originally read, “To an extent, I agree”, but it was pointed out to me by several readers that this wording suggested I was downplaying the human rights abuses suffered by migrant workers. As this was not at all my intention, I have modified the wording, and I thank those who pointed out the lack of clarity.