Saudi women have taken the wheels in recent months literally by defying the country’s notorious driving ban, and figuratively in attempting to advance their rights in the wake of the Arab Spring in the famously “conservative” Kingdom which allows women virtually no rights without male guardianship or representation.
In addition to the battles Saudi women have been waging on the ground and behind the scenes for their rights, or lack there of, they have had a champion in Princess Ameera Al-Taweel, the wife of Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the more progressive of the thousands of Princes of the Saud family, and one of richest men in the world.
Much like his peers in the Middle East, the Prince has been applying his wife as a public relations tool to project a more modern image of his country to the West. And it’s been working. Ameera recently completed a slew of press in the US, criticizing the Kingdom’s rigid laws for women, supporting the removal of the driving ban, and participating in international forums such as the Clinton Global Initiative to tackle rising unemployment amongst Arab youth.
It has been refreshing to say the least to watch an articulate and intelligent Saudi woman from the ruling family campaign for women’s rights in a country that normally prefers the voice of women to be well, non-existent.
And that’s precisely what has landed Princess Ameera Al- Taweel in hot water with her brother in-law, Prince Khalid bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz, who last week publicly reprimanded the Princess for her increasingly high profile image, threatening his brother to reign in the “repeated appearance of his wife in the media,” warning him of “severe” repercussions if the younger Prince does not stop “practices which violate our family, religion and Saudi values.”
Well there’s a slap on the wrist for you. While it may appear to some that the older Prince is just protecting Saudi culture, as sexism is often mistaken for, Prince Khalid bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz’s statements actually reflect the real and deep-rooted problems with the overall mentality in the Kingdom, one that believes that women are the property of men.
It is precisely this kind of thinking that not only keeps women off the streets in Saudi Arabia, but out of the offices and seats of government, keeping them out of the public sphere and trapping them in the domestic realm, relegating them indefinitely to the backseat.
What is also disturbing about the Prince’s statements is the correlation he makes with his sister in-law’s high-profile work and family honor. Around the world, and specifically in the Middle East, this idea of women symbolizing honor may sound romantic, but it is the direct source of horrendous acts of violence against women, such as “honor killings,” which justify murdering women who have supposedly damaged their family prestige, as the Prince stipulates:
…Our family honor is a red line and if you don’t respect this honor, then we do…I now tell you that if you do not come back to your senses and stop your deviation, then our response will be very severe and harsh next time without prior warning.
Using a man’s wife to publicly threaten and blackmail him? Sounds like plot from a classic (sexist) movie. I mean, are men in 2012 seriously still this insecure that they have to pin their prestige on women and use them as pawns in what is obviously a much larger issue of power?
Saudi women may be pushing ahead with their fight to expand the rights in a Kingdom that is determined to continue curbing them. If they have their way, one more Saudi woman may disappear from the global stage.
Hopefully Princess Ameera will demonstrate to the women of her country and the world that she is no bargaining chip, and usher Saudi Arabia into a new era for women.
*This post of mine was also published on Forbes Woman.