Do women’s rights activists really exist in Saudi Arabia?

There is no grassroots activism in the traditional sense in Saudi Arabia, and there is no indication that there ever will be

Sabria S. Jawhar
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The Western media have sniffed out another “Saudi activist” recently as a shining example of a “courageous” woman challenging the status quo in Saudi Arabia.

If media coverage is any indication, I’d say us girls have been through a couple dozen Saudi activists in the past decade or so with little to show for it. Anyone ever wonder where these activists go once they get their moment in the spotlight? What is a Saudi activist anyway?

If we were to define activists in a historical context, there are precious few, if any, Saudis that would qualify as an activist.

An activist by any definition would include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Lech Wałęsa. Closer to home, there are Egypt’s Doria Shafiq and Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai.

What these people have in common is a modest upbringing in a poor or middle-class background. They have also managed, to varying degrees, to generate grassroots activism. A groundswell of popular support leads to a lasting positive impact on society.

The closest a Saudi has come to being a true activist – and I’m sure she rejects this label – is probably Manal al-Sharif, who now lives in Dubai.

No grassroots activism

There is no grassroots activism in the traditional sense in Saudi Arabia, and there is no indication that there ever will be. Young Saudis use YouTube and Twitter to bring about change in our country, but even so, after an initial burst of energy and thought-provoking discussions, there is a sense that outspokenness has now been muted.

After an initial burst of energy and thought-provoking discussions, there is a sense that outspokenness has now been muted

Sabria S. Jawhar

There is little chance that an activist will emerge from a poor or middle-class background and influence Saudis of similar backgrounds. Jobs are at stake and few people see the upside of sacrificing food on the table for a cause that will go nowhere. We can simply look at the women’s driving issue as a campaign that has been tackled by women on and off for more than 20 years. Despite this, it has gained little traction. Going against the grain in Saudi society, even if it means rejecting the thobe for jeans and a t-shirt, has its consequences.

No, today’s “Saudi activists” - if there are any - are relatively wealthy, come from liberal families and do not feel threatened if their job disappears. These women can travel freely and they have the support of the men in their families. They can even drive in north Jeddah if they are not too obvious about it. Jail time and travel bans for disrupting the peace and tranquility of society are highly unlikely.

It’s the same everywhere: wealth has its privileges and the poor, well, they’re just poor.

A logical argument can be made that if these rich “activists” have nothing to lose, then they would be perfect to lead women to fight for their Islamic rights.

Such activists

Such activists launch petition drives, offer intelligent, well-reasoned arguments to support their cause and grab enough headlines in the Western media to be considered “courageous.”

And then … nothing.

The reason is obvious. The poor and middle-class see no payback in following the rich into the breach. They will pay the price for any law breaking. Their leaders will just go to Vienna for the summer.

Read Twitter and the reaction to such activism is depressingly the same. Westerners get excited in a “You go, girl!” kind of way and Saudis mock them, call them apostates to be thrown in jail or express their profound boredom.

When the members of my father’s generation returned from West in the 1970s with their bright and shiny university degrees, they were the young knights who were going to change Saudi Arabia from a desert kingdom to a modern country. The “new” Saudi Arabia would remind the old folks of Egypt at its height of intellectual and social freedoms in the 1950s. One man, who is now in his 60s and who I respect immensely, told me some years ago that it was just “too much trouble” to change anything in Saudi society.

It’s not the rich and comfortable who will lead us out of darkness, but today’s female university grads. They are the activists and they don’t even know it. They don’t even have to try. They are traveling thousands of miles to a foreign country, earning graduate and post-graduate degrees. Some may never return to Saudi Arabia, but others will. They will do what their fathers and grandfathers couldn’t. They will effect changes without the “courageous activist” label because, frankly, Saudi society needs aggressive thinkers and these young women are working within the system, not outside it.


Sabria S. Jawhar is a columnist and former Jeddah bureau chief for the English-language daily newspaper Saudi Gazette in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She also writes for Arab News. She is considered one of the leading female journalists in Saudi Arabia. Her news beats included the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior and was among only a handful Saudi women to specialize in terrorism coverage during the extremist attacks in Saudi Arabia from 2003 to 2006. In 2005, she earned a Fellowship at the Korean Press Foundation and Yonsei Communication Research Institute in Seoul, South Korea. In 2007 she was a panelist in the United Nations 15th International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East in Tokyo, Japan. She also was a panelist at the Second Saudi Female Media Conference in Riyadh in 2007. In 2010, Jawhar was named by the Dubai-based Arabian Business magazine as one of the "World's Most Influential Arabs" by ranking her No. 94 in its "Power 100" list. The magazine also listed her in 2011 as one of the "100 Most Powerful Arab Women." She tweets at @Saudiwriter.

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