Leading female scholars from Saudi Arabia have described moves to ease restrictions on women as government spin aimed at an international audience to bolster support for efforts to liberalise its ailing economy.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to appeal to western governments as a reformist while cracking down on the very women inside the country who have been campaigning for an end to systematic discrimination, they say.
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Rights groups welcomed a decision to end a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, but have called for more comprehensive changes to the kingdom’s “guardianship” system”, which Human Rights Watch describes as the main obstacle to realising women’s rights.
Hala Aldosari, a prominent Saudi woman academic in the United States, told Al Jazeera: “The government is trying to portray itself as reformist by tackling certain things that are visible to their outside patrons.
“They need international businesses to recognise the leadership of Saudi Arabia as a reformer in order to show that they are not discriminating against women and are reforming their competitiveness.
“But they are trying to pick and choose those kinds of reforms that they know will make a high impact on the international media and their allies, while at the same time silencing anyone within Saudi Arabia for demanding those reforms.”
A number of policy changes by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman included an announcement in September that women will gain the right to drive in 2018.
Saudi women activists have been campaigning for this since 1990 – it is the only country in the world that prohibits women from getting behind the wheel – and some have been jailed for defying the ban or are in self-exile.
External observers attribute recent policy changes to an ambitious economic masterplan unveiled by the crown prince, Vision 2030, aimed at ending the country’s dependence on oil by kick-starting its private sector.
Aldosari, a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute, praised Saudi women for their activism but said the country’s rulers are now trying to “hijack” their efforts in order to promote their credentials as reformists.
“Saudi Arabia needs to reform its economy, and that is why they have to remove barriers to women’s employment – and one of the main barriers mentioned over and over again is the lack of public transport and hence the ability of women to commute in an affordable, convenient way.”
She added: “What worries me is that, with every reform, the government tries to silence the activists who have called for it so that it can be controlled. They want to manage what reforms are enacted and how.”
Aldosari’s views chime with those of Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed, another prominent Saudi academic at the London School of Economics, who told a recent conference in London that it was no coincidence the driving announcement came on the eve of a UN Human Rights Council decision on sending observers to Yemen to investigate war crimes allegations.
“All the respectable journalists in the west were hailing the decision to give women the right to drive in the 21st century as if it were the ultimate reform that we Saudi women could aspire to,” said Al-Rasheed.
The academic warned liberals outside Saudi Arabia not to be “taken in” by the driving reform.
“These are media and PR exercises that want us to believe that the regime has actually changed,” she said. “We need to be aware, as women, how our gender issues are used by these autocrats as unelected, unrepresentative people, in order to show the world their soft face – that velvet glove.”
Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow at the Chatham House think-tank in London, said lifting the driving ban will have important repercussions on the lives of many women, and the fact that men will not be able to dictate whether they can get a driving licence points to this being a “significant change”.
“It fits with Mohammed bin Salman’s focus on the economy as well, because you have seen a growing number of Saudi women in the workplace yet there is basically no public transport if you need a way to get to work.”
Kinninmont said the growing role of women in work and the shift towards utilising more female talent after significant investments in women’s education has become “one of the huge underlying stories in the Saudi economy”.
She said: “Women are now the majority of students at Saudi universities, they are getting the best degrees, and they are increasingly interested in having a career.”
Human rights organisations have welcomed the decision on driving as a step in the right direction, but have called for comprehensive action to dismantle the “guardianship” system, under which women are in effect legal minors who must defer to men to make key decisions about their lives.
Rothna Begum, women’s rights researcher covering the Middle East for Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera: “The lifting of the driving ban is an achievement for Saudi women activists who have faced imprisonment, harassment, and intimidation for more than two decades.
“However, these reforms are limited unless the authorities dismantle the male guardianship system, which is the most serious impediment to women realising their rights in the kingdom.”
Samah Hadid, director of campaigns for Amnesty International in the Middle East, said: “We still need to see a whole range of discriminatory laws and practices swept away, including the repressive guardianship system where every woman has a male guardian to make decisions on her behalf.
“Saudi Arabia urgently needs to reform laws that treat women as second-class citizens in comparison to men.”
Hadid noted the announcement came at a time when Saudi Arabia continues an “unabated crackdown” against activists. A new counterterrorism law has been denounced by rights groups for giving the authorities in the kingdom a powerful tool to silence critics.
“Ironically, following the announcement Amnesty International received reports that women’s rights activists who campaigned for the ban being lifted received phone calls warning them against publicly commenting on the development – or else they will face interrogations,” Hadid said.