If the authoritarian state benefits from championing women’s causes, why do women ally themselves with authoritarian patriarchal structures to achieve more rights and visibility while others invite the state to maintain the status quo? Saudi women have not been able to gain the consensus of their society behind their emancipation. In fact, some women resist the idea, and seek greater restrictions on what they consider to be threatening their own interest as women. Given such a lack of unity, weak groups such as liberal women seek state intervention and protection to avoid reprisals from society. This is compounded by the fact that women are denied the right to organize themselves into an autonomous pressure group. In fact, Saudi Arabia remains one of the countries where civil society is curtailed by a legal system that does not leave great space for non-governmental organizations to operate outside state control. Even women’s charities are heavily controlled by the state through extensive princely patronage networks. Saudi women of all persuasions look for the state to increase its policing of men, restrain their excesses, and force them to fulfill their obligations and responsibilities towards women. In such a political context, Saudi women are left with limited choices. An authoritarian state proved to be willing to endorse some of their demands, increase their visibility, and free them from the many restrictions that they are subjected to. The power of the state and its wealth have proved too good to resist.
An excerpt from Madawi Al-Rasheed’s new book, A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
For a longer excerpt of the book, as well as an interview with Al-Rasheed: New Texts Out Now: Madawi Al-Rasheed, A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia
"I think the most viable means forward in political dissent in Saudi Arabia is first to look to its past. There is a common joke in Saudi that it has the most polarized society, despite a governmental ban on political parties. I’d like to explain this by drawing attention to a superb article that is both insightful and concise, written by Sultan al-Amer, a Saudi intellectual. Al-Amer explains the rise of political factions in Saudi Arabia, the first large-scale Saudi political movement being the ‘Sahwa’, or ‘Islamic Awakening’, of the 1980s to mid 1990s. Its sole focus was on preserving Arab and Islamic identity and interests of the region, ignoring political rights, and directly opposing and actively suppressing individual freedoms. As an opposite to this, the Saudi Liberal movement emerged that was preoccupied with individual freedoms. Both movements lack what the current political dissent in Saudi Arabia must include: a focus on political rights and democracy. As al-Amer puts it, “it is for this reason that I reject the liberal narrative. Not because I am against individual rights, but because I refuse the dismissal of political rights and identity. This is the same reason why I previously rejected the ‘Sahwa’ narrative as well, not because I was against Arabism or Islam, rather, I cannot accept the sidelining of political and individual rights”. And, in my opinion, the cause of Saudi women’s rights will only be successful when it is no longer treated as separate from that same movement for political and individual rights in Saudi Arabia."