If ever there was a time for the government of Saudi Arabia to stand up and defend its female citizens it is now, with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s “reforms” in full swing; to great international acclaim, women can now drive cars on the public roads in the Kingdom and even watch football in a stadium. However, that just looks like a veneer of respectability; in reality, the position of women living there is almost worthless.
The evidence is clear, not least that the authorities have imprisoned numerous Saudi women who have dared to speak up about human rights issues, including those who campaigned for the right to drive. In truth, while driving a car is important, it is a relatively minor issue on the scale of injustices that women face in Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, anyone else who criticises Riyadh’s treatment of women faces a sharp rebuke, as Canada’s ambassador found out when she was expelled from the Kingdom after Ottawa urged it to release jailed human rights activists. Far from being contrite, the Saudi government is now warning Canada to brace itself for further consequences for daring to criticise its policies and practices.
In Britain — like Canada, a key ally of Saudi Arabia — former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has just likened women who wear the face covering — niqab — to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”. Bearing in mind that more women per head of the population probably wear the niqab in Saudi and the Gulf region than anywhere else, it is reasonable to have expected Mohammed Bin Salman and his ministers to leap to the defence of Muslim women. They haven’t. The men ruling Saudi Arabia don’t really care a jot about women, least of all those who wear the niqab.
While the men who rule in Riyadh will not tolerate any criticism of their harsh treatment of female human rights activists jailed for speaking out, they will not defend women who wear the full face veil, the niqab or burqa. It is obvious that despite now being able to drive a car, women have no real place, role or regard beyond that determined by their Saudi husbands, fathers and brothers.
In neighbouring Qatar, the men in power need not look on in mock disgust at the government which is leading a blockade against them, for their silence is equally deafening. The same is true for the UAE, and Kuwait, other places where the niqab is ubiquitous. Are the women in these countries not worthy enough for their men to stand up for them?
Don’t these men feel any shame, or resent the fact that a British MP with ambitions to become the next Prime Minister has insulted their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters by saying they look like letter boxes and bank robbers? Not only has he done that in his Islamophobic article in the right-wing Telegraph, but the massive ego known as Boris Johnson has also opined that he could find no “scriptural authority” in the Holy Qur’an for the niqab. What will be next from Mufti BoJo; Muslims don’t need to pray five times a day?
The leaders in the Arab world continue to say nothing in the face of such attacks on Muslim women. Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, a similar silence follows Donald Trump’s previous endorsement of Johnson as a future British leader.
In Britain itself, there has been a fierce backlash, with the former minister being called upon to apologise. His party leader, Prime Minister Theresa May, has said that he had “caused offence, and “women should be allowed to wear the burka if they choose to do so.” Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve MP said that he will resign if Johnson becomes Conservative Party leader.
British Muslim individuals and groups have also called for action. Not without reason, they accuse Johnson of promoting Islamophobia and fuelling the potential for hate crimes, of which visibly Muslim women bear the brunt.
In his article, Johnson was actually opposing the ban on face veils introduced by Denmark, but he wrote that he felt “fully entitled” to expect women visiting his surgery to remove face coverings just as they should in schools and universities if a student “turns up… looking like a bank robber”.
He agrees with those who say that “the burka is oppressive” and “that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces… and I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.”
Former Conservative Party chairwoman Baroness Sayeeda Warsi described his comments as “indefensible” and insisted that they “have no place in the modern Conservative Party.” She also accused him of using Muslim women as “political fodder” in his drive for the leadership of the party.
Such home-grown criticism, though, hasn’t cut any ice with the rulers of Saudi Arabia, who have shown that they are not afraid to act if they don’t like criticism. Riyadh has already frozen new trade and investment with Canada, suspended flights to Toronto and put its educational exchange programmes on hold over criticism of its human rights policies. It is also stopping Saudi patients being sent to Canadian hospitals and plans to move those already there to another country.
On Wednesday, the Saudi government rejected offers of mediation with Canada over the dispute. “There is nothing to mediate,” Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told reporters in Riyadh. “Canada made a big mistake… and a mistake should be corrected.”
Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has proved fiercely hostile to critics as he amasses power under his father, King Salman. He is said to have erupted with fury when Canada’s Foreign Ministry demanded the “immediate release” of female human right activists held in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi. She is the sister of Raif Badawi, an outspoken human rights campaigner who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2014 on charges of insulting Islam. His wife and children are naturalised Canadian citizens.
“Canada will always stand up for human rights in Canada and around the world,” insisted Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, “and women’s rights are human rights.”
The Saudi Foreign Ministry called her remarks “a major, unacceptable affront” and “a violation of the Kingdom’s sovereignty.” It decried Canada’s “blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs, against basic international norms and all international protocols.”
This diplomatic spat will no doubt be resolved sooner rather than later, but what a pity that the same ministry in Riyadh cannot find any words to condemn Boris Johnson’s comments about women who wear the niqab. Clearly when it comes to politics on the Arabian Peninsula, we women count for nothing. That is the real injustice, which a driving licence or a season ticket to watch Al-Hilal FC in its Riyadh stadium will do little to assuage.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.