A Saudi teenager named Rahaf Mohamed al-Qunun has made international headlines recently. She tried to flee to Australia after she renounced Islam and was threatened to be ‘slaughtered’ by her cousins. Denouncing Islam is a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. Rahaf also reported that she was physically and mentally abused by her family and that she was being forced in an arranged marriage.

After she managed to make it to Thailand, her passport was taken by Saudi diplomats during her layover. She then locked herself up in an airport hotel room. From there, she tweeted about her situation to attract the attention of international media and the United Nations.

Wait! Weren’t women rights approving in Saudi Arabia?

This might all come as a bit of a surprise. Recently, Saudi Arabia made headlines because of its improvements in women’s rights. In June, women got the right to drive, and last week it was announced that women will now be notified by text if their husband divorces them. Under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s regime, women’s rights seem to be advancing. 

But critics say that these improvements are mainly superficial. Women’s rights are severely restricted by the country’s guardian system in which each woman is set under the control of her husband or a male relative. While this system is not embedded in the law, most Saudi institutions comply with. Women need their guardian’s approval for all major decisions, such as getting a passport, travelling, and signing a contract. 

Not only does the guardian system severely restrict freedom of choice on a daily basis, but it also puts women in a dangerous position of dependence and possible violence. Women need their guardian’s approval to seek justice if they faced sexual abuse or violence, even if the violence is of the hands of their guardian. This effectively forces women to stay in violent marriages and family situations. 

To be fair, the guardian system has loosened up a bit recently, and women can now access health care and education without a guardian’s permission. Since these law reforms, women are also allowed to open a business.

However, as women are still financially and socially dependent on their husband and male relatives, the effectiveness of these new rights are questionable. What happens when a woman starts a business against her husbands’ wishes? If doing so makes her face the risk of abuse or divorce, she might not want to carry through with it.

Yay, women can finally drive.. right?

Recently, Saudi Arabia had the dubious honour of being the last country in the world to give women the right to drive. But while women’s newly won right to drive seemed like a significant step forward, women still depend on their guardian’s permission to obtain a driver’s license. 

The new right to drive is a part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s programme called Vision 2030. This plan sets out economic and social reforms to reduce Saudi Arabia’s economic reliance on oil. One of the plan’s components is to get more women to enter employment to increase economic growth, and the right to drive is a way to do so.

At least nine women’s rights activists who protested the female driver’s ban are still stuck in prison. According to Amnesty International, these women are being tortured and sexually harassed. Last December, Twitter suspended the account of activist Loujain al-Hathloul’s father. He had been tweeting about the alleged sexual harassment and torture that his daughter faces in a Saudi government prison. 

In reality, the ‘right’ to drive, is more of a gift than an actual right. All of this begs the question whether women can now drive because of a Saudi wish for a more equal society, or just because it might be economically beneficial.

Other so-called improvements

This week, it was announced that women are now informed by text if their husbands are divorcing them. Before, husbands could divorce their wives even without ever letting them know. While this seems to be a big step forward, this law is superficial and hollow. It does not guarantee the right to alimony after the divorce or the right to custody of a woman’s children. 

Furthermore, there are still many things that women flat out cannot do in Saudi Arabia. One of these things is to ‘show their beauty’ in public. Saudi Arabia uses a dress code based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Women are expected to wear an abaya – a long cloak- and a headscarf. If women expose too much skin or wear make-up, they are often harassed for it. 

Women’s interaction with men who they are not related to is restricted as well. Most public buildings have separate entrances for men and women, and public places such as transportation, and parks, are mostly segregated. Interacting with unrelated men can lead to criminal charges against both parties, but women usually face harsher punishment.  

Shallow improvements meant to mask a fundamentally patriarchal system

While recently it seemed as is women’s rights were advancing in Saudi Arabia, these improvements are in fact pretty shallow. Newly won rights, such as the right to drive, are ultimately meant to mask a system in which men have ownership of women. And while this ‘progress’ is made in the name of equality and human rights, the motivating factor behind it seems to be mainly economical.

The power of social media

Fortunately, al-Qunun’s situation worked out so far. Because of her tweets, she was noticed by the U.N. Refugee Agency, and granted asylum in Canada. While this does not entirely guarantee her safety, at least she has the chance to build a new life in another country. 

Other women who managed to flee Saudi Arabia were not so lucky. In 2017, for instance, 24 years old Dina Ali Lasloom managed to reach the Philippines before she was returned to Saudi Arabia against her will. She was trying to escape a forced marriage. No one heard from her after she arrived in Saudi Arabia. 

Social media might have been the key to success in al-Qunun’s escape. Since she managed to attract international attention, Saudi Arabia’s options to take her back to the country were limited. In fact, in a video that al-Qunun posted, a Saudi Arabian official is heard saying that he wished they had taken her phone, instead of her passport. Would al-Qunun have managed to find asylum and to stay out of the hand of her family if it had not been for her tweets?

A growing number of Saudi Arabian women realise the potential of social media as well. Ever since al-Qunun managed to escape Saudi Arabia, women started tweeting. Under an Arabic hashtag that translates as ‘remove the guardian system, or we will all migrate’, women share their experiences living in Saudi Arabia. As the hashtag says, they threaten to leave the country if the guardian system is not removed. Let’s hope their protests are being heard.

What can you do?

Unfortunately, the restriction of women’s rights is not the only problem in Saudi Arabia. Other issues include the general lack of respect for human rights, the ongoing war in Yemen, and the murder on journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But hey, this does not mean we should sit and wait until human rights magically improve in Saudi Arabia. There is plenty that you can do.

For instance, you can use social media to raise attention for women’s and human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, and to put pressure on its government by sharing posts and articles! And you can help human rights organisations with their Saudi Arabia campaigns. To get you started, here is an e-mail campaign by Amnesty International UK to free Saudi female activists. Be sure to sign it!

Interested in women’s rights? Check out articles about the relationship between contraceptives and poverty and about the re-appropiation of the word ‘bitch‘.