One of the first viral videos to come out of the Middle East and North Africa region this year was from Saudi Arabia. It was a song sung in a local Saudi dialect that expressed female frustration at the patriarchal system rooted in Saudi and called for the end to male guardianship. The controversial lyrics, which called for the “extinction of men”, automatically drew a significant amount of attention and within a week of it being uploaded took the internet by storm. As with all women’s rights social media campaigns that come out of the region, the video was met with an array of reactions. The video elicited anger at the controversial lyrics. Many accused the Western media of targeting the Kingdom. Many others, especially women, were excited about the song and, as always, Western commentators were quick to jump on the analytical bandwagon, discussing the socio-political and religious implications of this song.
Translation: “What is the secret behind the song Hwages becoming viral in the East and West?What is the reason? The status of women in Saudi? The portrayal? Are we being targeted?”
Saudi society isn't done surprising us https://t.co/3kVnR8wPT0
— 𝖯𝖾𝗍𝖾𝗋 𝖧𝖺𝗋𝗅𝗂𝗇𝗀 (@PeterHarling) January 3, 2017
Translation: “Exceptional: I support the Arab race by sharing this clip of Saudi women singing against Islam”
Just like the vast majority of social movements that occur within the Arab world, both Western and Arab commentators shape their opinion of the movement based on their pre-existing opinions on Islam and Arab customs and traditions. Debates tend to take precedence over the cause itself and they are either accredited or discredited on superficial ideological accounts.Saudi Arabia justifies its laws against women using religion, but that is not to say that Islam is the core problem, or should be blamed. It is a religion with many interpretations and it must not be forgotten that there are women who use Islam to justify their call for rights. Many political and journalistic figures that have made a career out of preaching anti-Islamic rhetoric have been using the plight of Saudi women as a case study to use to capitalise on peddling their agenda.
When Islamophobic figures like Tommy Robinson or Katie Hopkins sensationalise the Saudi women’s cause, they are doing it through the lens of identity politics. They do not interpret Saudi women campaigning for social and legal reformation as Saudi women who demand their rights, but as women who are leaning towards the Western way of life. Muslim and Arab women campaigners are erased of their Muslim and Arab identity and are portrayed to be working against their religious and cultural identity, rather than the system in which they live.
This is dangerous on many fronts. Firstly, to say the Saudi women who are campaigning for their rights are adhering to Western values rather than Arab and Islamic values implies that the opinions of Saudi women are systematically homogeneous and the ethnic and religious identity of anyone who refuses to conform is erased. This silences key debates not just in the Saudi, but also the wider Arab and Muslim community.
When this is done by apologists of the current system in Saudi Arabia, it demonises the cause and becomes a form of social blackmail. To ostracise a person because of their wish to reform their society is a mechanism of control that seeks to demonise anyone who expresses their reservations towards the status quo. Rather than being a part of society with different opinions, they are portrayed as enemies of society.
It also gives the cause immunity from criticism, because the main voice of criticism of the social movement is a masculine regime apologist voice. Legitimate criticisms of the movement are silenced and overlooked both in the Arab world and in the West. Just as the Suffragettes movement in Britain in the late 19th century was focused on the emancipation of white women, the current movement overlooks the plight of non-Saudi working class women. This gives the movement elements of classism and racism and ultimately silences the most marginalised group in Saudi Arabia; working class, non-Saudi women.
The matter becomes globalised when Western commentators deny the women’s rights campaigners of their religious and cultural identity to advocate their orientalism. In addition to them being disrespectful and disingenuous in their alleged solidarity, they are used as a political tool to showcase Western values. Rather than supporting Saudi women in breaking stereotypes and misconceptions about them, they are instead perpetuating stereotypes with their white saviour complex.
Consequently, this ends up being damaging for Arab and Muslim women in the West. To say that these women are campaigning for “Western values” rather than women’s rights is a patronising notion that implies Muslim women all over the world are unable to make their own decisions and must be influenced by a foreign ideology to rise up. This is becoming even more apparent in the British media; the new “Real Housewives of ISIS” comedy skit which was produced by the BBC portrayed British women who joined Daesh as being scatter-brained who ultimately joined the terrorist organisation because their male counterparts seduced them into doing so on chatrooms.
While there have been clear cases of this happening, the dynamic is over-simplified to serve the mainstream discourse of Muslim women being subject to the control of men. Key factors that led to the influx of girls joining Daesh, such as the online grooming of vulnerable underage girls, mental health and poverty are overlooked.
Saudi women are speaking out. They are speaking out for their rights and they are speaking out to build a better society for themselves. For people to jump on the women’s rights bandwagon and serve their political agenda by using such a serious cause within an identity politics framework is a hypocritical action that should not be taken lightly. If anything, it creates further domestic obstacles for these Saudi voices, does not allow them to reflect on the legitimate flaws inside their movement and plays into the wider subjugation of Muslim and Arab women.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.