Op-Ed: Don’t Let the Saudi Government Co-opt the Feminist Struggle
By Mozn Hassan
This week marks the second anniversary of the Saudi government beginning systematic mass arrests of Saudi feminists and women’s rights activists. These crackdowns happened against the backdrop of seeming progress in the kingdom: Saudi women can now drive, travel alone and be elected as officials.
Except, the women who sparked calls for these changes are in jail.
My personal journey with this movement began as an Egyptian girl growing up in Saudi Arabia. Later, as I became an Egyptian feminist, I got to know some of these activists personally. I have always felt a certain connection with Saudi women. Perhaps, it is because I was raised there and understand how we all come from a region that is always talked about but whose activists are constantly concealed and ignored. Ours is a region that is always enveloped in stereotypes that we try to fight relentlessly to bring the region’s true diversity to the surface.
Many people see Saudi women as one homogenous bulk: they must all be oppressed, they must have no feminist movement, they must all be rich, they do not need more rights and they do not truly share the issues facing the rest of the region. Another common perception is that it is simply impossible for any feminists to emerge in Saudi Arabia as they do not have a movement legacy and they don’t have a real public sphere where a strong and independent feminist movement can flourish.
All these misconceptions of fellow feminists in Saudi Arabia blind us from seeing their deep struggles and engaging with their demands. Saudi feminists are trying to form a first-wave feminist movement, and they are demanding basic human rights, like the right to drive and the right to be their own guardians. Some people view these causes as irrelevant and privileged, but few people understand just how important it is for women to become independent in Saudi Arabia, for them to be able to drive and to move around alone safely.
The power of the feminist movement in our region is that we understand each others’ struggles. We know well that we are misrepresented and our voices are not heard. We deeply believe in solidarity and experience it.
Saudi women have been raising their voices, struggling and engaging in different forms of action for years using the limited tools they have access to. These courageous women are now paying the price dearly as they have been arrested and are being ruthlessly tortured and sexually assaulted in Saudi jails. We must admit that we were too late in responding to their needs, in understanding their specific struggles and in realizing the price they would pay as pioneers of feminist thinking and action.
Too many women have been taken from us.
Nassima al-Sada, a brilliant writer and activist who persevered to become a candidate in her local elections and have a voice in the public square only to be then removed from election lists.
Samar Badawi, who fought male guardianship and continued her fight even as her husband and brother, two prominent human rights defenders, had been jailed.
Nouf Abdulaziz, a women’s rights blogger, who has a dream of living freely in her country.
All these brave and incredible women are now in jail.
Meanwhile, their authoritarian government has created a narrative of progress on the issue of women’s rights, taking all the credit for ensuing changes. The Saudi regime is co-opting these women’s tireless work, while they are now paying the price for their courageous activism. In a couple of years, they will be forgotten.
As an Egyptian, I can see history repeating itself. The Egyptian government has always co-opted the narrative of the feminist movement: yes, over time, Doria Shafik’s demands were heard, but she was placed under house arrest until she took her own life. I grew up thinking that the government gave us our rights, but through my personal feminist journey and thanks to the work of earlier generations of feminists, I now know the truth.
I now understand that history is written by powerful men who do not account for the indispensable roles of women paving the way to progress in all walks of life.
I also see myself being erased and silenced by the Egyptian government, which has harassed me and imposed a travel ban on me for advocating for women, including documenting and helping victims of sexual assault during and after the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
I urge all of us to remember the important work of Saudi women and call for their release. We must never forget the dire price they are paying for their bravery.
This is the time more than ever to recognize and strengthen our regional feminist movement. Struggle together, share our journeys and remind the world that women’s rights in authoritarian regimes are not achieved by themselves.
For each step of progress, women have struggled and women have paid the price. Most of these women have since been forgotten.
Release our fellow feminists, release our friends, release our futures.
Release Saudi Women!
Mozn Hassan is the founder of the organisation Nazra for Feminist Studies, which documented sexual assaults during and after the 2011 Egyptian revolution. She is currently under a travel ban by Egypt for her feminist activism. She received the Right Livelihood Award in 2016 “for asserting the equality and rights of women in circumstances where they are subject to ongoing violence, abuse and discrimination.”