How Saudi Arabia Uses the Purple Washing  Strategy?

As soon as we hear about new decisions about the conditions of women and girls in our region and the world, they begin to be celebrated as achievements for them.

They are seen as radical changes in their lives, “presented” by the leader/commander/president/king/party/ruling regime.

On the margins, many discussions are being waged in feminist, political and human rights circles.

Discussions about what these decisions are, and their actual effects on women. And the extent of its morality, and the morality of celebrating it and the people who make these decisions.

What does it mean for us to have the first female prime minister, in a country that is undergoing a coup against the constitution?

What does it mean for the first woman to go into space, while other women are arrested and placed in cold cells, when both matters are in the interest of the authority itself?

And to what extent can we read into the status of women here, or their nominal/representative/legal status, as an indicator of social justice?

As feminists, we are interested in having this debate, blogging and writing about it, for several reasons.

The first is that we sometimes fall into the fallacy of supporting regimes that are hostile to our interests, and promoting their rhetoric.

It also contributes to whitewashing its crimes, granting it legitimacy on the shoulders of the issues of women and girls, and ignoring public opinion about their true situation.

So, we allow these regimes to sweep away our struggle and our feminist existence, and monopolize the discussion of our issues. And to create conflicts and classes between activists and groups.

As for the other reason, it is that we are accountable to each other, to our societies, and to future generations, about which narratives we adopt and carry?

And on whose side do we stand? And who are our allies?


Political Washing and Purple Washing

The concept of political washing refers to a strategy that uses issues of justice and the rights of the most marginalized groups to whiten the image of a country, regime, party, public figure, or company.

This includes covering up his/her/their crimes, and acquitting him/her/them of the violations committed, in the context of the same and/or other cases used.

This means reinforcing the structures of oppression and discrimination, by building an opposite fake image, and presenting it to the public/public opinion.

Violet/purple washing is considered a form of political washing.

The color purple refers to feminism, women’s and girls’ issues.

While the term refers to the marketing strategies adopted to hide and disguise the views and practices hostile to feminism and women.

And to hide the violations against them in all their diversity. As well as hiding the violations against societies, by dyeing them with other colors that seem to carry a supportive value for women and equality.


How Do We Use the Concept of Purple Washing in Criticism and Analysis?

The question we have to ask is:

How do we offer a feminist critique based on the concept of purplewashing news, events and decisions that seem at first glance supportive of women?

We can deconstruct these inputs by asking ourselves a series of questions, and researching their answers.

Who are the women that this news/decision/event talks about? From which country and which region of this country?

Is their gender and sexual identity normative?

Are they citizens? To which social class do they belong? From what ethnicity and which religion or sect?

In other words, to ask if the decision/event includes all women and girls, or does a limited category benefit from it, who already has certain privileges?

Does it reflect their real situation? How do we expect it to affect their lives?

Do we have evidence and examples of this effect?

What is different and similar between this decision/event and these examples? The question is about the background of this decision/event.

Is it the result of accumulated feminist or human rights work? Or is it a political decision outside the authority of what?

What is the form of this power? Is it participatory democracy, or repressive?

Do their interests intersect with the interests of the society in which the women and girls concerned by the decision or event are located?

Does this decision/event benefit the authority? What is the general human rights situation in the country? Are there violations?

What about the foreign relations of this country? Does the authority practice any human rights violations outside the country?


How Does Saudi Arabia Use the Purple Washing Strategy?

Since 2016, we have witnessed a clear change in the Saudi authorities’ discourse towards women and girls.

While we read dozens of news articles about granting them rights that Saudi women have never had.

It started with the right to drive, which has long been a thorny issue in the country.

Then increasing women’s participation in the fields of sports and science, and the unprecedented rise in their presence in the labor market.

They were also allowed, for the first time, to obtain a passport without the consent of a guardian, to enlist in the army and intelligence services, and to hold the position of ambassador.

Finally, the amendments made to the Nationality Law, and other decisions.

All of these changes were part of Vision 2030, which the kingdom announced in April 2016.

It is a post-oil plan for Saudi Arabia, and it focuses on establishing giant government projects that cover several fields.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia spends billions on projects, promoting the vision, and the “New Saudi Arabia.”

The economic model it seeks requires a different image of it, one that seems safer for women and girls.

An environmentally friendly image, open to engagement and progress in many fields, such as sports, arts, science and technology.

At the end of 2019, Saudi Arabia started issuing tourist visas for the first time in its history.


Ongoing Modifications and Continuous Violations

Despite the importance of the amendments that Saudi Arabia has made in recent years, and the benefits that have been achieved for many women, it was remarkable how many contradictions these changes carried with them.

Before implementing the decision to allow women to drive in June 2018, the authorities launched a campaign of arrests weeks before the decision.

In May 2018, 9 Saudi women activists were arrested for demanding their rights, including the right to suffrage.

They were subjected to torture and numerous violations during their imprisonment, in addition to a campaign of defamation and demonization waged against them by the Saudi media.

At the time, the spokesman for the Presidency of State Security stated, “The relevant authority monitored a coordinated activity of a group of people, through which they carried out an organized action to transgress religious and national constants, and have had suspicious contact with external parties, in support of their activities. Recruiting people working in sensitive government positions, and providing financial support to hostile elements abroad!”

The activists were not released when Saudi women started driving, nor were they released after what some considered as the fall of the male guardianship system in 2019.

Which are the two main things these individuals have fought for, for years.

But, their detention continued well beyond that, and the authorities indicated that they were detained on charges related to “state security.”

As if the Saudi authorities wanted to establish here that it continues to impose its hegemony, and that granting these rights is only according to its will and decision.

Arrests, unfair sentences, moral assassinations, and smear campaigns against women activists continue to this day.

On August 9, 2022, a Saudi court sentenced Salma Al-Shihab (34 years old) to 34 years in prison, followed by a travel ban for a similar period.

Salma is a feminist and human rights activist, and a mother of two children, ages 4 and 6.

This indicates that the authorities’ view of women has not really changed.

The violations against women continued, in parallel with what some considered a “correction of the Saudi path” towards them and their rights.


Were These Reforms as Real and Radical as Promoted?

The overthrow of the male guardianship system included a series of amendments to the travel and civil status regulations.

Chief among them was allowing Saudi women to obtain a passport without the consent of a male guardian, for those over 21 years old.

It also opened the way for them to travel without the need for a guardian’s permission.

While these changes did benefit many Saudi women, they also left the door open to circumventing the law and trying to obtain a “court order” restricting women’s travel.

They also still need a guardian’s permission to marry, or to leave shelters or prisons.

As for the recent amendments to the Nationality Law, the media celebrated them as “a precedent in granting Saudi women nationality to their sons and daughters”!

It suggested to the reader that this law finally equalized women and men, and viewed women as full-fledged citizens.

But, in fact, the decision allowed for the naturalization of the sons and daughters of Saudi women from a foreign man, provided that the son/daughter has the status of permanent residence in the Kingdom upon reaching the age of majority.

And that he/she is of good conduct and behavior, and has not previously been sentenced to a criminal judgment, or to a prison sentence for a moral crime for a period exceeding 6 months.

And that he/she is fluent in the Arabic language, and that he/she submits, within the year following his/her puberty, an application to be granted the Saudi Arabian nationality.

These conditions express the continued discrimination against Saudi women, and the failure to consider their citizenship as full and equal to men.


The Human Rights Situation in Saudi Arabia

The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia has long been a global issue.

In addition to arrests, torture, restrictions and travel bans, the authorities continue to carry out death sentences.

In 2019, it executed 186 people, then the number of executions decreased in 2020, only to rise again in 2021.

But, the decrease was not the result of a real change in the authorities’ view of human rights and respect for the right to life.

Rather, it came as a natural result of the closures that coincided with the spread of the Corona epidemic.

While it carried out 138 executions in 2022, affecting Saudi citizens, Arabs and foreigners.

On the other hand, it waged a war against Yemen for years, during which it killed and injured thousands of Yemenis, including women, girls and boys.

Others have had their lives destroyed and lost all elements of safety in it.

Here it is worth considering the duality of “empowering” women and killing them, inside and outside Saudi Arabia, either through executions and series of repression, or through war and bombing.


Armaments, Alliances with Colonials, and Celebration of the Inclusion of Women in the Army

Saudi Arabia has paid billions of dollars to buy weapons.

Between 2015 and 2018, it conducted deals with America, Britain, France, Russia, and Germany.

And in July 2019, King Salman approved the deployment of American forces on Saudi soil.

The Saudi Press Agency quoted an official source in the Ministry of Defense at the time as saying, “The decision aims to raise the level of joint action in defending the security and stability of the region, and ensuring peace in it.”

And if we want to search for Saudi arms deals, and its military and intelligence cooperation with America and the Zionist occupation, we will find dozens of news articles and headlines.

This prompts us to ask several questions, including: Whose interest does this amount of military and intelligence spending serve? What indicator reflects the possible and committed violations?

What margin of freedom do male and female activists have in a similar context?

And for the benefit of whom do these collaborations come with colonial entities that have always plundered the region’s resources and the wealth of its people, and killed and abused these people?

In parallel with the continuous armament and cooperation with occupying entities and enemies of the peoples of the region, the decision to include women in the Saudi army is another achievement.

Although the decision carries many conditions that reflect the masculine view of women as inferior, the most important question here is:

Do we really want to see women as part of violent institutions that do not serve the interests of their people and the peoples of the region?

How does their presence serve these institutions and their propaganda?



This article mainly seeks to present purple washing as a critical framework that can be used and projected in different contexts, with the aim of reaching a conscious adoption of narratives and alliances. Analyzing and confronting discourses of authority towards women and their rights.

We take Saudi Arabia as a clear example, with the aim of approximating the concept, and referring to the violence practiced by the Saudi authorities twice.

Once, by committing violations against the rights of women and girls in particular, and human rights in general.

And again, through its continuous attempts to obliterate its violations and crimes, and whitewash its page.

So, this article aligns with the marginalized in the face of the billions spent on building and normalizing the narrative of power.


Written by: Majdal Youssef


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