Saudi Arabia’s ‘Premature Reformers’

Last week, Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi women’s rights activist, was released from her imprisonment. She had been in prison for a thousand days and was jailed on a dubious pretence. The delight of her family and her many supporters has not diminished their sense that al-Hathloul was jailed unjustly, for no reason at all.

The Saudi state has a problem with women’s rights and with the women who demand them. In the recent past its opposition was straightforward and monolithic. The state was clerical and conservative. All women who wanted to dress as they liked, or to drive, or to live under a system other than one of male guardianship, were enemies of the state and of the faith – and opposed on those grounds.

Women’s rights activists interviewed by Peter Theroux in the 1980s, whose stories appeared in his memoir Sandstorms, by and large ended up in prison or disillusioned.

Now things are subtly different.

Under Mohammad bin Salman, the powerful crown prince, Saudi Arabia wishes to present an image of new, dynamic convergence with modernity. This means allowing reforms, some token and others significant. When the state unilaterally allowed women to drive in 2017, a single domino fell. None else have fallen since.

When Saudi Arabia conceded to one demand of the activists, and publicly suggested its own reforming credentials, the kingdom’s problem with those demanding reform changed.

It wants to be seen as the sole guarantor and granter of women’s rights. New reforms are intended as acts of arbitrary generosity. The state wants to do all this in its own time and reap the rewards and international recognition, completely without pressure.

Those who seek to apply that pressure are unwelcome, and duly punished. For her part in opposing the still-existing system of male guardianship, al-Hathloul was kidnapped from the UAE and confined in a series of prisons.

major report in Newlines magazine details the cruel treatment of other female activists in the country. Disobedient women, especially those requiring social or religious ‘correction’ are confined to institutions called Dar al-Reaya – ‘Homes of Care’. The conditions there are akin to imprisonment. They have all the dour features of prison, with solitary confinement for some prisoners and, amid very patchy information, at least one reported suicide of a resident.

Those kept in these institutions often got there by accusing their guardians of an abuse, or were merely handed over to the state as requiring correction on the word of a male relative.

In 2019 enough women’s rights activists either fled Saudi Arabia or attempted to do so that it became known as the ‘year or runaways’. Many escaped either poor treatment mandated by the laws of the state or the repercussions of attempting to protest against them.

Why would the state target these women while it attempts, in its own words, to reform the place of women – cultural and legal – in Saudi society?

It seems the Saudi state, which attempts to paint itself as dynamic and reforming, deeply dislikes these activists because they represent an alternative to reform granted as a favour from dynastic and clerical power. Women like al-Hathloul are arrested, in other words, because they show the state up by demanding more from it than it is willing to concede.

In the middle of the twentieth century, at the height of the red scare, there was a suggestion among socialists and communists that the affiliations which tarred them with suspicion and difficulty were longer-standing than the beginning of the cold war. Those who had fought in Spain against Franco, for example, largely with communist and anarchist militias, spread the rumour that this was at the root of their problems with the government at home. While the American state was not at war with fascism, these people were; and so, they said, somewhere in an FBI archive their file included a note which labelled them each a ‘premature anti-fascist’.

This is, to my knowledge, an entirely unfounded rumour, intended to be as amusing as it was sinister. It is a relevant analogy in this case.

The women arrested and imprisoned for political agitation by the Saudi state are not accused of ordinary crimes. Many of them have suffered because they supported social changes that have since been endorsed and effected by the kingdom. They are ‘premature reformers’ – sole error was advocating for a change in policy before the state got around to the same view.

That al-Hathloul was imprisoned follows this pattern. She opposed male guardianship, which is still a fact of law and life, but was imprisoned for an extreme, punitive length of time. Her release raises its own questions. Is it a prelude to another showy reform, or merely an attempt to dim the bad press al-Hathloul’s confinement continually caused (something which may well have influenced a new American administration)?

If this is a PR effort, it coincides with another push of the dynamic, reforming schtick. I have lately noticed more effort being exerted to promote various projects of the Saudi state on social media, including Neom, its promised city of the future – a hypermodern vision of a technological state reformed and sleek, no longer dependent on oil or repression.

Neom is no closer to fruition than when the idea was first unveiled, rather like the still-unmade reforms which have been demanded since long before al-Hathloul was imprisoned.

A version of this piece was published in The Critic.

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