Saudi women can drive starting Sunday. Why are feminists there still labeled traitors?

Aziza al-Yousef drives a car on a highway in Riyadh on March 29, 2014, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia’s ban at the time on women driving. (Hasan Jamali/AP)
Aziza al-Yousef drives a car on a highway in Riyadh on March 29, 2014, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia’s ban at the time on women driving. (Hasan Jamali/AP)

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia will lift its decades-long ban on women driving. But just weeks ago, its public prosecutor announced that 17 individuals had been detained for undermining the kingdom’s security, a move that targeted prominent women’s rights advocates. State-linked media outlets have since carried out an aggressive campaign portraying the arrested activists as “traitors” and “foreign embassy agents” working to destabilize the kingdom.

It is not uncommon for authoritarian regimes to use language about external threats — real or imagined — as a pretext for singling out and discrediting vocal activists. Yet given the significant loosening of certain restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia recently, why would the state engage in such behavior now? Women play a particular role in the carefully built idea of Saudi nationalism, and the state has much at stake in maintaining the status quo.

The crackdown on Saudi feminists

Of the 17 detainees, five women and three men have been released until investigations are complete, while the rest remain under arrest. Among those detained since May 15 are Loujain al-Hathloul, a high-profile feminist previously detained for 73 days in 2014 after attempting to drive from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia; Aziza al-Yousef, a veteran women’s rights advocate; and Eman al-Nafjan, well-known blogger at “Saudiwoman,” who participated in the campaign to lift the ban on women driving.

Since mid-2016, all of these women have campaigned to end the male guardianship system, which legally puts every Saudi woman under the authority of a male relative. A guardian’s consent is necessary for getting married, obtaining a passport, and studying or traveling abroad.

Those arrested also appear to have been collaborating to establish an organization called Amina, to provide care and protection for survivors of domestic violence, and recently filed a request to the government to approve the group. Despite the passage of a long-promised civil society law in late 2015 regulating associations, such a collective effort was probably not viewed favorably by the authorities.

However, why did the authorities resort to naming and shaming, labeling those arrested as traitors? How did being a feminist activist come to be associated with disloyalty to the nation? Looking at the broader tension between nationalism and feminism can help answer these questions for the Saudi case and beyond.

Feminism and nationalism: An uneasy alliance

Nationalism is a multifaceted concept that may simultaneously promote emancipatory and repressive principles. Several feminist scholars have pointed out that nationalism’s focus on group cohesion — whether based on race, religious identity or ethnicity — inherently creates tension with the egalitarian ideas and ideals often incorporated within feminism.

Other scholarly work argues that modern nation-states are profoundly gendered, with patriarchal assumptions and practices embedded within nationalism. In many Middle Eastern countries, women are unable to pass citizenship to their children or noncitizen spouses.

Others, meanwhile, have critically described how nationalist projects can portray women as biological reproducers of the nation, boundary markers of different national groups, transmitters of national culture, symbols of national difference or participants in nationalist struggle.

Often nationalist discourses use the family analogy to bolster the impression that the nation is as natural as the biological family, reinforcing existing social hierarchies based on the subordination of women.

Women then become a symbol of authentic national identity that must be upheld or restored. In this way, nationalism maintains a monopoly over the power to symbolically define what constitutes being a woman.

Women and the crafting of Saudi nationalism

In Saudi Arabia, the depiction of women as the guardians of the moral integrity of the nation, markers of the nation’s commitment to Islam and biological producers of future pious generations dates back to the kingdom’s founding in 1932.

Since then, traditional roles for women have been configured to reflect these ideals. As with most nationalist projects, the appropriation of women became a central characteristic of the crafting of Saudi nationalism through sex segregation, female domesticity and dependence on male guardians.

Yet this configuration has been hardly fixed or static. Since the late 1950s, women have contested key issues such as public education for girls, women’s driving, women’s presence in the public sphere and the male guardianship system.

The use of patriarchal nationalist discourse

Through their resistance, Saudi feminists constitute a challenge to the dominant narrative of nationalism, and therefore the state has viewed them as disruptive annoyances — or betrayers of the nation. Feminists have been repeatedly forced to defend themselves against such charges of disloyalty.

The use of patriarchal nationalist discourse becomes especially convenient during contentious times — such as the Grand Mosque seizure in 1979 or the women’s driving demonstration of 1990 — as the government arrested those involved and portrayed them as agents of Western vices.

Similar tactics were used just last month to portray feminists as agents of foreign forces and as traitors. On June 3, the Saudi daily Al Jazeera ran a front-page article headlined: “The eyes of traitors shall find no sleep.” Another daily newspaper, Okaz, used similar patriotic terminology, predicting up to 20 years in prison for the accused.

On social media, the hashtag #Agents_of_the_embassies was launched to demonstrate public support for the arrests and to “defend” the nation from the flood of some >300,000 hashtags that the media allege have targeted Saudi Arabia in the past 15 months.

How foreign policy shapes domestic feminism

All of this has occurred in a state of heightened nationalist sentiment in Saudi Arabia. After the Saudi intervention in Yemen, the state’s new “decisive” nationalism has been framed as a necessity and not a choice.

Additionally, the ongoing diplomatic row with Qatar has unleashed an unprecedented outpouring of nationalist support. By appealing to the defense of the homeland, patriarchal nationalist discourse can capitalize on nationalist sentiment.

This all increases the cost of promoting feminism in Saudi Arabia, especially because feminism often involves forming alliances and being embedded within diverse international solidarity networks and activities.

So, paradoxically, one of feminist activism’s key features — its transnationalism — has worked to discredit Saudi feminists in recent months. And though the current nationalist reform projects may superficially appear to benefit all Saudi women, women continue to be portrayed as merely subjects of top-down empowerment efforts and passive recipients of governmental decrees instead of proactive agents of change.

Huda Alsahi is a PhD candidate in political science at Scuola Normale Superiore.

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