Judith E. Tucker, a professor of Middle East history at Georgetown University, is president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). Miriam R. Lowi, professor of Middle East politics at the College of New Jersey, is chair of the Middle East-North Africa wing of MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom.
On June 24, Saudi Arabia, making a long-awaited change, officially lifted its ban on women driving. Yet for the past seven weeks, Hatoon al-Fassi, an internationally known scholar, professor and women’s rights advocate, has remained in detention, having been arrested just as she was preparing to exercise the newly granted permission to drive in her country. The tensions and contradictions of Saudi reform, especially when it comes to women, could not be more clearly illustrated than in her case. (It is worth noting, of course, that a number of other female activists have been arrested before and after the lifting of the ban.)
Al-Fassi is, in many ways, an example of what Saudi Arabia has accomplished when it comes to offering opportunities to its female citizens. She received her BA and MA degrees with honors from King Saud University in Riyadh. She pursued the rest of her graduate education abroad with government support, earning a PhD in women’s history in 2000 from the University of Manchester in England. Returning home, she rejoined the faculty at King Saud University, published one of the very few studies of women in pre-Islamic Arabia, and continued her research and writing on women and social life in ancient times — even though, for reasons unknown, she has not been allowed to teach classes there since 2001.
She was an active participant in the Baladi (“My Country”) initiative that lobbied for years for women’s right to vote and run for office in municipal elections in Saudi Arabia. In December 2015, several years after that right was granted, she and her women compatriots took part in municipal elections for the first time. She also wrote regularly for one of Saudi Arabia’s leading newspapers on women’s and other issues of concern to Saudi society. All those who met al-Fassi came away with a similar impression: She was optimistic about the future of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
So what went wrong? The much-heralded reforms sponsored by the current Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aim, at least ostensibly, to allow and invite Saudi women into public space. In addition to lifting the ban on female drivers, he has led the way in limiting the power of the religious police to discipline women’s dress and demeanor, authorizing female singers to give public concerts, permitting Saudi women to attend mixed-gender cultural and sporting events, and encouraging an increase in the number of women in the workforce. All that would seem to fit nicely with al-Fassi’s optimism about the direction of change in her country. So why is she now in detention as opposed, say, to being offered a position as minister of women’s affairs?
The arrests of al-Fassi and her colleague reveals the narrow vision of the Saudi state under the crown prince and his father, King Salman, when it comes to the project of gender reform. It is, first and foremost, a state project designed and run with the interests of the rulers in mind. Permitting the entry of women into public space is a necessary recognition of social reality: Many Saudi women are now educated, worldly and ambitious, and denying them all meaningful forms of citizenship risks alienating a large sector of the population, both women and their male allies. And the Saudi state needs women, particularly well-educated women, in its labor force as it attempts to reduce dependence on expatriate labor and to diversify its economy.
What apparently it does not want, or feel it needs, is an independent woman’s voice of any kind. The state will decide on the character and pace of reform, the state will be the sole spokesperson for reform, and the state will take full credit for reform. Women activists who dare to insist on expressing their opinions or push for more rights than they have been granted will be reined in, silenced through bans on their writing, teaching and movement, and even jailed.
For those familiar with the history of women’s movements in other settings, this may not come as a shock. The French revolutionary government at the turn of the 19th century outlawed independent women’s organizations, and French women who raised demands for women’s rights could meet with bloody ends. Unruly British suffragettes were imprisoned and brutally force-fed in the early 20th century. American feminists who protested for women’s rights during World War I were routinely beaten up on the streets and then jailed. Denying women their voices and confining their bodies then, as now, puts the lie to any pretense of justice, equality and social progress.
Al-Fassi and her imprisoned colleagues have much to contribute to their country. Political leadership with a truly reformist agenda would be well-served by hearing, and allowing others to hear, their ideas for a better, more inclusive and forward-looking Saudi Arabia.