Politics is always a mix of uncomfortable choices. The expanse between the platonic ‘good’ and the pragmatic is vast and enduring, and often the choices we get are separated only by degrees of unpalatableness. The recent case of tectonic political movements in Saudi Arabia, which has seen scores of royal family members imprisoned, including noted billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal, is no different. At least not from a feminist perspective.
Just last month a ‘female’ robot was granted citizenship in the kingdom — a move that actually gives said robot more rights than an actual female citizen. Unlike human women the robot will not require a male guardian (wali), nor have to live by the stringent dress code (abaya and headscarf). Irony aside, it isn’t just robot rights that are making strides in the culturally and socially insulated kingdom.
In June 2017, the young prince Mohammad bin Salman, the current king’s favourite son, was appointed crown prince. The move was as sudden as it was perilous, but was fueled by a serious need for economic reform. For decades the kingdom rode on petrodollars, as it still does, but the deflated prices of oil means that without urgent and massive economic reforms, the kingdom will perish. Economic reforms cannot be accomplished without concomitant social reforms.
Bin Salman has quickly become the most powerful figure in Saudi politics. Apart from being the Crown Prince he is also the first Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of defence, and President of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs. In short, he wields control over almost everything, and he is using that control to usher in an age of unprecedented changes within the kingdom.
His proposed reforms, which include privatisation of state assets and the reduction of subsidies, and a possible end to the sinecures of many citizens, have largely been welcomed by Saudi youth, who constitute a majority of the kingdom’s population. Older traditionalists, however, are less impressed. His actions are also anathema to the Wahhabist brand of religion that has governed life in the kingdom since its inception.
Bin Salman seems resolved to curb the influence of the ulema in public life and rein in corruption within the royal family, the latter the touted explanation for the spate of arrests. King Faisal, the man who abolished slavery in the kingdom in 1962, had also tried to reduce the role of the ulema and check royal family corruption, which led rather directly to his violent assassination.
As positive as some of the young prince’s rhetoric sounds, there is also another side to the story. Unlike the hapless King Faisal, bin Salman isn’t actually the king, and in the current atmosphere, his reforms might be more of an attempt to cultivate support to ensure his succession. Of the promises of economic privatisation, the IPO process of Saudi Aramco keeps stalling, as do plans of creating the next international tourist hubs along the Red Sea coastline. His naïveté in foreign policy is by most accounts to blame for the current war and resulting infernal state of Yemen, and has led to the rift with Qatar and the despoiling of whatever semblance of past Arab unity.
Notwithstanding bin Salman’s intentions or blunders, his influence has been far less dour for women in the kingdom. In 2015 women finally gained the right vote and were also given the right to stand as candidates in municipal elections. Earlier this year they gained the right to legally drive motor vehicles. All this in a country where it is still illegal for women to try on clothes when shopping.
In grand political schemes the plight of women has never found easy sympathy. If we hark back to the romantic era of early twentieth century Bengal, we find epidemic rates of suicide or immolation among young women. Tagore in his short story ‘Streer Potro’ has the narrator express on the issue, “They started saying ‘It has become a fashion among girls to die by setting their clothes on fire.’ You [character’s husband] said ‘All this is play-acting’… maybe so, but why is it that what gets burnt is always the saris of Bengali girls, and never the dhotis of the brave men of Bengal?”
Few names are more prominent today as purveyors of political ideas for modern Western Muslims than that of Tariq Ramadan. He has also often claimed to have coined the term ‘Islamic feminism’, by which he refers to 1. the consciousness of Muslim women as women, instead of mother, sister, wife, etc., and 2. the ‘near-ubiquitous’ presence of women in Western public sphere; an interpretation of feminism that is, at best, condescending. In the post #metoo world the same man has been accused of perpetrating violent rapes by multiple women. One of the accusers attested that to her Tariq Ramadan believes that “either you wear a veil or you get raped”.
In a world where women are still fighting for their rights, and in a kingdom where they are barely considered citizens, uncomfortable compromises are the best we can hope for. Mohammad bin Salman is neither a liberal nor a democrat, nor has he shown any signs of allowing freedom of speech or other political freedoms to flourish. He has detained scores of his critics and worse. Nonetheless, from the feminist perspective he still is the least unpalatable choice.