Saudi Arabia Fails to Polish its Image… And Feminists Continue to Struggle
The political system has been pegging away over the past years to polish Saudi Arabia’s image, especially with regard to women’s rights issues. This came in response to the independent Saudi feminist movement that has flourished in recent decades, including campaigns demanding the repeal of patriarchal laws such as the driving ban and male guardianship laws.
The Saudi regime has promoted “empowerment” propaganda, despite the arrests of feminist activists, some of whom have been sentenced to decades in prison.
The regime of Mohammed bin Salman tried to suppress the rising feminist struggle and expose violations that affect women and feminists in particular. This is done by using celebrities, the media, and bourgeois women to improve Saudi Arabia’s image in terms of women’s rights. But on the other hand, it launched brutal attacks against women activists, which destabilized its false propaganda.
Fawz Al-Otaibi and Her Sisters Expose the Mendacity of Empowerment Slogans
The Otaibi sisters, Fawz, Mariam, and Manahil are among the feminist figures who have emerged during the feminist campaign to overthrow the state since 2014. They tweeted and sent messages demanding the fall of guardianship in the kingdom. They were prominent activists who posed a prominent challenge to patriarchy and the normalization of women’s presence in the Saudi public space.
Mariam and Fawz entered the direct struggle to overthrow guardianship using their names and revealed their exposure to violence, and their rejection of the patriarchal law that considers them incompetent and under guardianship forever. As a result, Mariam Al-Otaibi was subjected to violence from her male brothers because of her feminist activism. So, she asked the Saudi authorities to protect her from domestic violence.
Accordingly, on April 19, 2017, Mariam Al-Otaibi was arrested and her father filed a complaint against her for being absent from home. He used the guardianship law in force against his daughter, after she decided to move to the capital Riyadh to work there and become independent in her life. However, the guardianship system stood in the way of the independence she sought.
Because of her father’s claims, Mariam al-Otaibi spent more than 100 days in Malz women’s prison. Her lawyer then demanded her release, based on the lack of evidence for the charges against her.
Mariam Al-Otaibi was released after insisting on rejecting the charge, only to come out with a victory documented on Twitter under the hashtag: #Mariam_is_free_without_a_guardian
Mariam went from prison to prison. She has been banned from travel since her release until today, a method that the Saudi regime has taken as an additional tool of punishment. Most of the released activists, such as Loujain al-Hazloul, Iman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, and others, remain banned from traveling outside Saudi Arabia.
Mariam Al-Otaibi launched a campaign on her Twitter account in February 2022 to expose this arbitrariness and demand her right to travel.
Fawz Al-Otaibi exposes Saudi Arabia’s policies against women
In a related context, Fawz Al-Otaibi has protested via Twitter since last May against the mendacity of the slogans of the Saudi state. This revealed her and her sisters’ personal suffering with the violence of the Saudi state, and she faced multiple attempts to entrap her.
She was forced to sign fabricated “offenses” under the charge of “creating clips of a sexually inspiring nature” at the Middle Beast festival in Riyadh. It is the very same festival that Saudi Arabia used to burnish its image, hosting celebrities from around the world. Through it, it promoted the myth of the “New Testament” and the break with the Awakening Era.
Fawz was on the verge of arrest after the transfer of this charge to the Public Prosecution, but she was able to leave the country just before that.
Targeting Fawz was not isolated from the campaigns launched against her for documenting her life with her husband on social media without an abaya or hijab. Fawz’s lifestyle was seen as provocative, even a threat to patriarchy.
Activists like Fawz reveal the importance of patriarchal laws to the political system. She posted several tweets on her account criticizing the violence of the Saudi state as the number one threat to the freedom and security of Saudi women.
Manahil al-Otaibi Arrested: The authority of Hijab is Stronger Than Saudi Propaganda
Fawz al-Otaibi revealed that her sister Manahil al-Otaibi has been detained since November 2022. The Public Prosecution accused her of patriarchal charges including “publishing several photos and clips in indecent clothes, inciting girls not to wear the traditional black abaya, and criticizing laws related to women, including the male guardianship law.”
Manahil was among Saudi women activists who repeatedly tried to challenge the laws enforcing the niqab and forced hijab. Since 2017, she has campaigned for walking on the streets and exercising without a hijab. She even took to the streets of Riyadh wearing sportswear and without a hijab in 2019.
The Saudi regime did not intend to allow anyone the most basic rights to freedom, especially women. For a repressive state, this is an incitement to rebellion and a threat to authority. Just as stated in the Public Prosecution’s accusations against Manahil Al-Otaibi.
Openness to European tourists and repression of Saudi women
Fawz al-Otaibi continues to highlight the duplicity of Saudi policies, which promote openness in international media while oppressing and imprisoning Saudi women.
Al-Otaibi periodically posts on her Twitter account pictures of European tourists roaming the streets of Saudi Arabia and its archaeological sites without a hijab, while the country’s female citizens and residents are punished with imprisonment, fines, and intimidation.
The Saudi regime has promoted major media campaigns about the non-mandatory abaya for female citizens and residents. However, since the decision was issued in 2020, many Saudi women have been fined amounts ranging from 100 riyals to 3,000 riyals. The fines come as punishment for not wearing an abaya, or wearing colorful abayas, and dancing in public. This is according to loose masculine laws that come under the heading of “public taste”.
The Saudi government seeks to present an image of a country free from patriarchal laws against women and girls, as part of a broader campaign to promote tourism as well as Bin Salman’s rule
However, it continued to oppress Saudi women who demanded equal rights. Not only with men, but also in not restricting the freedoms of Saudi women, while privileges are given to European women.
This practice reflects the patriarchy of the state and its submission to the colonial divisions of the world that give privileges and priority to any person from European countries.
Harsh Sentences and Terror Courts Target Feminist Struggle
Since 2018, the Saudi regime has used political detention to stamp out the independent feminist movement. It systematically arrested most of the feminist names known for their feminist and human rights struggles. This was followed by retaliatory arrests aimed at silencing them.
Through legions of electronic flies, the state has taken the trend of launching censorship systems such as the “Kollona Amn” (We are All Security Forces) application. This app encouraged electronic flies to report women’s accounts, facilitating surveillance and arrests.
Many female activists have been victims of these campaigns, including Asmaa al-Subayei, Rena Abdel Aziz, Lina Al-Sharif, Maha Al-Rafidi, and Najwa al-Humaidi. In addition, several female detainees have been lying in prisons since 2019, without any trial or charge other than expressing their opinion.
The Saudi state used harsh sentences as the sword of Damocles against activists. During this year, horrific sentences were handed down to several activists, including Salma Al-Shihab, sentenced to 34 years, and Fatima Al-Shawaribi, sentenced to 30 years.
The activists have gone on hunger strike to protest their detention and arbitrary sentence. However, they weren’t heard of at the time, until Al Qist announced the unfair trial of Fatima al-Shawaribi, and revealed the continuation of this repressive approach.
Crackdowns on LGBT People in Saudi Arabia
The crackdown has not only arrested and imprisoned feminist activists and politicians who opposed the regime or participated in the feminist struggle. It also included LGBT people in the kingdom, and arrests included people active in the queer movement.
Although documentation is scarce due to widespread hatred of LGBT people, queer activist Tariq bin Aziz was the voice that exposed the targeting of LGBT activists in Saudi Arabia.
Tariq bin Aziz was one of the voices who proclaimed optimism about bin Salman’s reign. He refrained from criticizing the regime while attempting to protest laws criminalizing homosexuality and transsexuality. He also criticized the hijab and guardianship laws. However, Aziz was arrested on May 19, 2021, for tweets expressing his views on these laws.
Tarek Ben Aziz spent nearly 20 days in solitary confinement, during which his privacy was violated, his hair shaved, and he was physically and psychologically tortured.
He described this experience as, “an experience that threatened his security forever and made him lose confidence in his homeland”.
Repression breeds resistance
The Saudi regime has also tried to attract many names that participated in campaigns to bring down the guardianship laws and lift the ban on driving. But the mendacity of slogans and the suppression of opinions was enough to dismantle this trap, making Fawz Al-Otaibi and Tariq bin Aziz join the voices that resisted the state and exposed its repression.
We note from these facts that the Saudi regime has betted on repressive policies to curb the feminist struggle. But it did not learn from history. The history of Saudi women in particular, who became stronger by repression and more determined to fight for freedoms.
Despite the repression of the first generation of feminists who demanded the abolition of patriarchal laws during the eighties and nineties, and the use of arrest, societal isolation and punishment against them, the feminist struggle emerged with more commendable strength and solidity thereafter.
Today, after arresting, prosecuting and sentencing feminists, Saudi feminism continues to struggle to overthrow patriarchal laws, expose state violence and patriarchy, and sow resistance in new generations.