Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – For many people in Saudi Arabia, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz was the symbol of iron-fisted national security. His policies showed a loyal and fierce commitment to the protection of the crown, even if it meant sacrificing human rights or developmental goals. Through his various and prolonged positions in the government, the prince’s views shaped the lives of millions of Saudi men and women for decades.
Upon hundreds of sympathising obituaries published in national Saudi newspapers, the one offered by Dr Muneera al-Osaimi [AR], a nurse who was recently hired as assistant undersecretary to the minister of health (the first woman to achieve such an appointment), was noteworthy. Dr al-Osaimi commended the late crown prince, stating that he was exceptionally supportive of Saudi Arabia women, particularly in offering new working opportunities “suitable for their femininity”.
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To get a close-up of the prince’s views on women and their expected roles in the society, a recording of the prince in a public event three years ago can be helpful. In the video, the prince addressed what seemed to be a question on women’s equal citizenship from a lady in the audience. He repeated a popular royal speech on the dignified status of women as mothers, daughters, and sisters. Then, he stated the reservation on women public participation: Ensuring their modesty among men and fulfillment of their primary physiological roles as wives and mothers.
As common to most clerics’ speeches, the prince did not fail to mention the ill-treatment of women by their families and their objectification by their communities in foreign countries. The highlight of the speech was the prince’s declaration that “no Saudi man allows ‘his’ female relative to be working as a secretary for another man”. Needless to say, that declaration received a gratifying applause from the all-male audience.
The problem with the views on the late crown prince is that many of them were institutionalised, adding to the barriers on Saudi women’s access to resources and opportunities. The famous call for women to start driving is a stark example. In 1990, the prince legalised a religious edict against their call in an attempt to please the religious fanatics and calm their resentment from the Kingdom’s alliances with the Americans in war.
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In recent years, the crown prince did not see the need in having female members in the Shura advisory council. Later, he changed his mind and welcomed the king’s announcement in 2011 to admit women into the council as “a requisite to meet the developmental goals”. The prince made sure to declare that the decision is internally made with no external pressure, hinting maybe to the increased exposure of Saudi women due to the Arab uprising and the revival of the women driving campaign. The late prince preferred the use of the term “development” more than “reform”, as the latter indicates an existing failure that needed to be changed completely. In his views, Saudi Arabia was a success, a work in progress, despite many frustrated voices and petitions submitted by concerned citizens asking for “reforms”.
The unfailing support of the late prince to the Committee of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) was evident. CPVPV enjoyed a free hand in enforcing gender segregation at public events and spaces. Catastrophic events like the Mecca school fire and car chases with any suspected couples lead to “developmental” change in the leadership of the committee and their planned activities, yet women continue to be popular targets for CPVPV.
Supporters of the late crown prince hail his decision in 2001 to issue identification cards for women. Women used to be listed under their guardians’ in family ID cards. The prince explained the decision as a requirement for modernisation, to allow women ease in performing their activities and to prevent fraud and trickeries in the absence of identifications.
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Nevertheless, the cards were insufficient to apply for any governmental procedures. This helps particularly in courts, where women are still required to cover their faces and to find two witnesses to confirm their identities. In 2009, Prince Meqrin bin Abdulaziz, the chief of the Saudi intelligence department, stated in a hearing inside the Shura Council that a total of 26 governmental institutions are inaccessible to women, while only 11 governmental institutions accept women with their national ID.
Upon the crown prince’s death, calls for reform are being revived. Female activists are wary of having their demands hanging by a thread, of having to rely on a willing “guardian”, or on a “royal decree” to grant them promises instead of rights. Their vulnerability created by lack of legal and constructive measures to protect their rights needs to be addressed. The age-old royal allegiance with the clerics and the extremists to keep women in check has to be reconsidered.
For decades, ill choices were made to marginalise women in exchange for religious extremists’ loyalty. We were left with high unemployment rates among women, painful cases of domestic violence without effective redress, and paralysed half of society, where women are treated like perpetual minors. These issues will not go away by issuing conditionally valid ID cards, or letting the clerics maintain their status quo, or administering a public speech where women’s dignity is described as sacred, or promising rights when the “society is ready”. We may not know what or who to expect, but we sure have a legacy to remember, and to avoid.
Hala Al-Dosari is a Saudi writer and activist.