Covering Women's Rights, Silencing SuppressionWestern News Media and Saudi Female Activists
This short article is partly based on Amélie Le Renard, "'Women's Rights Washing': On the Selective Circulation of the Rights and Demands of 'Saudi Women,'" in The Globalization of Gender: Mobilizations, Frameworks of Action, Knowledge, edited by Ioana Cirstocea, Delphine Lacombe, and Elisabeth Marteu, forthcoming (first published in French in 2018), and Amélie Le Renard, "Le double discours des medias français sur les femmes saoudiennes," Orient XXI, June 1, 2018, orientxxi.info/magazine/le-double-discours-des-medias-francais-sur-les-femmes-saoudiennes, 2488
At the time of this writing, Saudi female activist Israa Al Ghomgham, in detention since December 2015, is waiting to be judged, together with four other (male) activists. After an international campaign against her death sentence, it was announced, at the end of January 2019, that she risks a long imprisonment instead (Brennan 2019). In August 2018 several media outlets announced her decapitation, probably the most tragic among many hoaxes circulating around Saudi Arabia in the last few years. This short piece questions how Western news media deal with women's activism and its repression in Saudi Arabia, notably in the aftermath of the kingdom's lifting of the ban on women's driving.
Since May 15, 2018, at least thirteen activists advocating for women's rights have been imprisoned, including Hatoon Al-Fassi, an editorial board member of JMEWS.1 Among the news media that since September 2017 have widely announced [End Page 251] that women would be allowed to drive as of June 24, 2018, many have written that this step "was overshadowed by the recent arrests of women who had campaigned for the right to drive there" (O'Grady 2018). Yet arresting activists while announcing reforms has been a usual practice of successive Saudi governments in recent decades. What is new is the simultaneous detention and torture of several female activists who are well-known abroad for defending the right to drive (Stancati and Said 2018). This cause is widely covered, in contrast to other causes that female and male activists in Saudi Arabia defend and get arrested for, such as democracy, ending discrimination targeting Shiʿa Muslims, and ending arbitrary detentions.
The massive arrest of activists advocating for women's rights contrasts with the communication strategy led by successive Saudi governments since 2001, a strategy in which foreign media have often turned out to be unintentional allies. Following the participation of several Saudi nationals in the 9/11 terror attacks, Saudi governments launched various initiatives to transform the international image of Saudi Arabia, particularly with regard to women's status. Some measures have been aimed at making women's professional lives and mobility less difficult. Besides the right to drive, the latest was the law against sexual harassment adopted on May 30, 2018. Others have enabled women's integration in some of the regime's consultative institutions: female candidates have been allowed to participate in the Shura Council (an appointed assembly) since 2013 and in the municipal councils (half appointed, half elected) since 2015.
While many Saudi women have taken advantage of these changes to develop their professional careers and expand their activities (Le Renard 2014), the government has continued to repress any autonomous initiative in favor of women's rights. The crackdown on activists advocating for the right to drive should therefore be understood within the larger framework of the repression of any activism in a country where political parties and demonstrations are forbidden and where the right of association is extremely limited. Repression has become even harsher since the Arab Spring, and even more since Mohammed bin Salman became the governing crown prince. Before May 2018 the ongoing repression against women recognized as women's-rights activists by Western media was more discreet, including at most individual arrests lasting a few days or weeks, suspensions from work, and passport confiscations—not torture in jail.2 The assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 suggests that discretion has become a secondary preoccupation for the Saudi crown prince, a position that also applies to the regime's foreign policy.3
In terms of Saudi women's rights, Western news media usually publish articles that either demonize the country or praise the progress made in the last several years, although sometimes both tendencies are present in the same text. On the one hand, mainstream media often reproduce information about the advances of "Saudi women" in an uncritical way. When women were allowed to vote in the municipal [End Page 252] elections, for instance, the limited significance of the right to vote in a country without representative institutions was rarely mentioned; when it was, the information was placed at the end of the article, thus with little visibility. For example, the CNN article titled "Saudi Suffragettes: Women Register to Vote for the First Time in Saudi Arabia" focused on "the right to vote" even though the article ended by citing critiques by Human Rights Watch about the limited impact of this measure (Watkins 2015). From this point of view, we could argue, as Madawi Al-Rasheed (2013) notes, that the government's communication strategy regarding women's rights has worked relatively well, not only with other governments but also with the media outside Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is portrayed negatively in often poorly informed reports that tend to victimize Saudi women, who are described as "shadows under the sun, under tutelage until death" (Diatkine 2013). This is especially true in the French media, which I have followed more specifically. A reduction of Saudi women to victims is in line with an "imaginary Islam" constructed over several decades in the context of the Islamic revolution in Iran and various "headscarf affairs" in France (Deltombe 2007). Such portrayals exaggerating the prohibitions on women in Saudi Arabia are not uncommon. For example, a column published in the progressive daily Libération wrongly listed supposed "ban[s] on going out, walking around, going to do errands, sitting in a restaurant" (Jaouën 2015). In an astonishing manner, the tone of many of these articles about "women in Saudi Arabia" often oscillates between pity and humor. In line with this, they often mock Saudi society because of its supposedly bizarre practices. As a result, the "victims" end up being represented as figures very far removed from "us"—as inhuman forms, as monsters—in a process that ultimately helps shape Islamophobic discourses.
In contrast, when individual Saudi women are portrayed in Western media, their profiles are selected following very specific ideological criteria. The media only give voice to women who fight against groups that are considered "enemies" by Western governments (e.g., the Taliban or the Islamic State) (El-Shikh 2015). More generally,Western media often celebrate women who challenge conservative interpretations of Islam or, simply, Islam altogether. These narratives about "Saudi women" highlight their supposed fight against forms of obscurantism specifically linked to religion. These discourses are shaped by a liberal vision of women's emancipation that is particularly popular among journalists and other intellectual elites, as well as by the media's Islamophobic bias. In the Saudi case, the "liberal" women who receive more media attention are those who blame society and/or religious institutions more than the government itself for the constraints and limits that women experience in the kingdom, and who insist that their actions are not against the regime.4 For instance, Manal al-Sharif, who launched the Women2Drive campaign in 2011 (and was imprisoned for eight days for her activism), praised the king in her videos and described driving as a social taboo.5 The point here is not to support or [End Page 253] condemn this strategy but to underline how foreign news media have tended to give exclusive visibility to such a discourse while ignoring other forms of activism.
Most of these women allow for the publication of photographs of their faces, an act that already represents a specific category of Saudi woman, given that in Riyadh, for instance, the great majority of Saudi women wear niqab. All this can be related to an imperial feminist discourse in which professional liberal women criticizing religion and demanding more rights as women embody progress, all the more so as they are unveiled. In general, however, the media present these women uni-dimensionally, without mentioning their class. More often than not, they convey images of women who are wealthy but oppressed by religious institutions and/or men around them. As a result, Saudi women from the middle or working classes, the descendants of slaves, and the (many) women who live in the kingdom without Saudi nationality (one-third of the residents of big cities) are rendered invisible in media coverage.6
By making visible only certain demands by Saudi women, Western news media participate in making other demands invisible, particularly those that confront state authorities more directly. The arrest of well-known women's-rights activists may finally turn the media's attention toward the intense repression of the last decades, notwithstanding the announced reforms. I am struck, however, by the scarce coverage of the detention of these women's-rights activists relative to the enormous media attention around the lifting of the ban on women driving. The silence around Al Ghomgham's incarceration strikes me even more. The Western media covered it only after the hoax announcing her death through avideo in August 2018 went viral, and never paid attention to the four male activists being judged with her.7 Following the argument I have developed here, this silence may result from the dissonance between her profile and the very specific narratives that the media expect from Saudi women. Unlike internationally renowned activists like Al-Sharif, Al Ghomgham has never appeared in the media. Unlike the "liberal" women described above, she is a prodemocracy and human-rights activist who has advocated for the liberation of political prisoners and participated in organizing demonstrations in the Eastern Province. In the last decade international news media have significantly contributed, alongside governmental suppression, to making these forms of activism by Saudi women invisible. [End Page 254]
AMÉLIE LE RENARD is a permanent researcher in sociology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. She is author of A Society of Young Women: Opportunities of Place, Power, and Reform in Saudi Arabia (2014). Her current project uses a feminist, postcolonial approach to examine the construction of "Western" residents in Dubai as a privileged group. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Four detained activists have been released since then.
2. The activist Loujain Al Hathloul's first arrest, in 2014, lasted seventy-one days.
3. The Saudi-led war on Yemen has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths due to air strikes, famine, and diseases since 2015.
4. While the label liberal in the Saudi context is assigned to those opposed to a greater Islamization of the country, it says nothing about their exact position regarding the Saudi regime and government, encompassing both people who oppose the regime and those who support it and only criticize the religious institution.
6. Slavery was abolished in 1962 in Saudi Arabia.
7. While Al Ghomgham was arrested in 2015, all news articles about her case in English and French were published after August 22, 2018. The news that the prosecutor sought the death penalty for her was known on August 14. The hoax video showing the beheading of a woman in Saudi Arabia (whose actual name was never published) circulated beginning on August 19. See Pezet 2018.