This summer saw the first women from Saudi Arabia compete in the Olympics. Yet the domestic picture of the 11 million women who live in Saudi Arabia remains largely unchanged. They have no political rights, must have a male guardian (regardless of their age) and are the only women in the world prohibited from driving. The call for change is being championed by an unexpected and polemic figure.
HRH Princess Basma Bint Saud Bin Abdulaziz is the niece of the current ruler King Abdullah and the 115th child of King Saud. Despite being one of the most elite royals in the country, she is using her prominent position to speak out for women in a culture where they have no voice. She writes copiously as a journalist and blogger tackling issues of poverty and women’s rights both in the press at home and more recently across the globe. The divorced mother of five also owns her own business, a chain of restaurants, which she hopes to expand to the UK soon. Sitting in front of me, wearing no veil, trousers and a pair of heels, she seems a world apart from the stereotypical image of a woman in Saudi Arabia.
Yet that is exactly what she is: a world apart, the exception, not the rule. “I am very much a woman of high privileges. I have been educated; I have travelled the world. Whatever I say, it can never be as honest as if you had heard it from them. I can try and draw you a picture however, but it isn’t a very rosy one. A woman in Saudi Arabia lives on a daily basis in fear. There’s nothing she can count on. She lives under the tyranny of the man; she has no rights; nowhere to go if she’s abused. She lives in darkness and some light must be shed in her way.”
The Princess is, however, very keen to defend the royal family. She wants reform not revolution. She claims that the King is in fact a reformist who desires change. I wonder, therefore, who and what, prevents progress for women? Her explanation is not black and white, something she herself was keen to emphasise. “The King is a Bedouin man and he gives a big role to women. In that culture, the women tend to raise the children and do the housework, do the fieldwork and drive the camel or the horse. The men are there for protection from other tribes. The woman has her role in this tradition but it’s not modern and it’s in a completely different shape to that in the West.”
Her tie to her family is evidently strong but it does place her in a difficult position, both intellectually and personally. I wonder what her family’s reaction has been and her answer is frank and heartfelt. “Everyone has a price to pay. My family are not against me, but they are not pleased. They have not done anything to stop me. It would not be fair to say that they do not have a hand in what is happening on the ground. Women’s rights would threaten their position with the religious authorities. There are so many grey areas, so many areas that must be reformed.”
Her campaign is directed principally against the Mutawa, the draconian religious police force who in 2002 refused to allow schoolgirls to leave a blazing building because they were not wearing the correct Islamic dress. “I am a very religious person but for me the Mutawa does not represent Islam, they represent extremism and Islam is a religion that forbids extremism. They misinterpret the Qu’ran. Unfortunately, they are getting more and more power.
King Abdullah, since he is a reformist, has been giving money to lots of other organisations in the country. One of the organisations is the religious one, and they’ve taken advantage of that power. King Abdullah wanted to give more rights, more freedom for other organisations to form, to be socially active. Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, they have taken the reign.”
The battle she is fighting is not just against the patriarchy. Women themselves have proven to be an enemy to reform. “They are playing into the mindset of the culture. It’s the same in Egypt now- you have Egyptian women in the parliament who are saying that women should go back behind doors, raise their family, wear their veils. I am not saying that women shouldn’t play their role but they should play their role within the twenty first century. We cannot go back to the fifteenth century.”
Unexpectedly, the Princess publicly declared that women should not be able to drive. Progress, she thinks, needs to happen over time: “It’s not safe. They would be beaten up by men on the streets which would merely reaffirm that women driving is bad for them. First of all we need to change the constitution, men and women need to be made equal on the streets, in the law courts, in the home, in the workplace, in all rights. Then we might be ready, then women should drive.”
This is not a simple problem, nor one without its contradictions. Yet the unlikely advocate of change must also be a seed of hope for the future of women in Saudi Arabia.