Radical Feminism in Saudi Arabia

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12th Apr 2019 International Relations Reference this

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Feminism is the only analytical lens which conveys the depth of female oppression under the essentially patriarchal society in Saudi Arabia. Both the public and private spheres within Saudi Arabia inherently uphold male dominance through the strict observation of the Islamic authoritarian state. Therefore, because all power is intrinsically gendered, represented, for example, through all state power encapsulated within men, power can be directly correlated to domination over women. The growing movement of Saudi women publically walking alone without a male guardian (in defiance of the law) since December 2016 is significant of ‘Saudi women actively…challeng[ing] their society… to allow them entry into the precincts of modernity’, but more importantly, the realm of equality with their male counterparts (Al-Rasheed, 2013, p.283). This essay will first justify its use of radical feminism as the most fruitful analytical framework to fully understand the embeddedness of patriarchy within Saudi Arabian culture and society, whilst progressing towards a solution to patriarchal dominance. The latter half of the essay will then explain how liberal feminist analysis of Saudi women’s subordination is shallow and does not provide suitable resolutions for combating the patriarchy within the epicentre of fundamentalist Islamic culture.

Radical feminism is the only feminist strand which digs deep within society to uncover its patriarchal roots, and how it stems from the private sphere. Radical accounts are fruitful in explaining political phenomena as they adopt a more holistic conception of the political. This can be understood as politics being a ‘process’ manifest throughout society. To understand how a radical feminist analysis is most utilitarian in understanding the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, ‘patriarchy’ must be examined and defined as a concept. Patriarchy is a systematic, institutionalized and pervasive process of male dominance over women, rooted beyond the institution of the family and the household structure. Such a principle has a physical form within Saudi Arabia, and that is the King, who has long absorbed all branches of government, simultaneously embracing the role of a moral leader (of course, morality being relative to the culture Saudi Arabia is embedded in, and one that systematically disadvantages women in accordance with a strict set of fundamentalist Islamic beliefs). When dissecting the roots of the word ‘patriarchy’, the father figure lies behind the meaning, providing a linguistic reasoning behind male dominance. Within Sexual Politics, Millett (1970) suggests patriarchy is a ‘social constant’, found in all institutions. From early in life, conditioning takes place to encourage children to conform to gender roles. Therefore, she suggests patriarchy is a hierarchical institution, as she relates the government to a ‘patriarchal government’. Traditionally, men are the head of the household and the breadwinners, whereas women are reduced to their reproductive roles. A link can be drawn from Millett to a more radical feminist thinker, who suggests women are conditioned to a passive, sexual role (Greer, 1970). Within The Female Eunuch, Greer argues women have been rendered sexless objects by a cultural stereotype. More so, within Patriarchal Attitudes, Figes (1970) also portrays women as inferior and subordinate to men, perpetuating a stereotype of ‘femininity’. However, with relation to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, this is far too shallow an explanation. Though evident through practices of female genital mutilation within Saudi Arabia, and purely through the fact that women are domesticated and have not been assimilated into the public sphere, such an explanation falls short of understanding the history of authoritarian and fundamentalist Islam embedded within Saudi Arabia. Rather than cultural stereotypes as the main perpetrator of male dominance (as is the case in Western society), it is the institutionalized oppression of women as doctrine through fundamentalist Islam and the authoritarian state which entirely impedes women’s entry into the public sphere, whilst legitimizing female subordination within the private sphere. Thus, women’s oppression is rooted in male dominance within the home and legitimized by society’s fundamentalist doctrines, and this idea is encapsulated with ‘the personal is political’. This slogan highlights the view that gender roles and relations in the home cumulatively hold significant influence for gender outcomes in society.

Moreover, radical feminists incorporate not only the private sphere but the public sphere within their analysis and critique of the status quo. An attempt is made to draw attention to all aspects of life and the patriarchal values that pervade society. The very nature of what is ‘political’ must be redefined. For instance, sexual inequality is preserved because of the sexual division of labour, which is considered natural and based off traditional views of woman and man’s respective roles both in society and in the household. These views are substantiated only by socially-constructed stereotypes of how people should behave traditionally (caring for a woman and competitive for a man), perpetuating social conditioning throughout society as a whole entity. Radical feminists would approach this issue with a solution drastically different than that of liberal feminists, not only accomplishing shallow achievements within the public sphere, but targeting the core of female oppression at the home. Millett (1970) proposes conscious-raising to be the solution to patriarchy society. One could argue how this appears to be a liberal solution, concerning the improvement of education, or representation in the public sphere, or even protests raising awareness of women’s subordination. However, Millett’s proposal is a perfect counter-balance resolution for Saudi Arabia. One must understand how this issue is located at the cradle of Islamic culture, one that follows the religion’s doctrines fundamentally. It is futile and counter-intuitive to suggest a sexual revolution, as most radical feminists do, would bear successful fruit in Saudi Arabia, due to the fact that a sexual revolution would warp the very foundations of society, which are embedded in culture, history and religion. More so, shallow attempts at equality in the public sphere have been made, including women’s suffrage being awarded in 2015. However, to what extent is this a true representation of the culture finally being tolerant to the idea of female equality in the public sphere? If men are indeed seen to be the head of their household, within a state that legitimizes behaviour to ensure this view become instantiated, what is to stop a man forcing his wife to vote a certain way, if at all? The idea of a sexual revolution being the vehicle for female emancipation is too drastic for life in Saudi Arabia. Millett’s conscious raising to overthrow patriarchal society and form a more cohesive, equal entity seems not only practical considering the environment, but occurring already. Thus, radical feminism reveals the gendered and unequal character of social political power more effectively than liberal feminism by incorporating its critique beyond the public sphere, and focus in on the core issue of patriarchy rooted within culture and the household.

Liberal feminism is far too shallow in scope, meaning the solutions it ascribes to a problem within the public realm does not address the crucial issue of patriarchy rooted within Saudi Arabia’s culture and underpinned by the law. Liberal feminists believe patriarchy is used to describe the unequal distribution of rights and entitlements between men and women, as well as the under-representation of women in the public sphere. More so, liberal feminists champion legal and political equality with men, which would mean equity with regards to the public sphere. However, as analysed previously, radical feminists have clearly demonstrated how women’s oppression by men in Saudi Arabia is sown within a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam by the state, sustaining this dominance by awarding men with full control over the public sphere and legal or moral laws upholding their dominance in the household. Liberals do not address the private sphere, which is the bedrock of societal patriarchy, and the birthplace of male dominance in the public sphere. Because of the reformist limits liberal feminists adopt, there is not much emphasis on the sexual division of labour or the power distribution within the family, which is reflected in society. This may be because liberal feminists have accepted to a slight degree that women have natural impulses towards family and domestic life, which is evident through Friedan’s attempt to reconcile ‘personhood’ with family life in The Feminist Mystique (Friedan, 1963).

Moreover, Saudi women gained the right to vote in 2015. There are cultural and social implications as to how this particular example of suffrage is not genuine progress. Culturally, it is accepted that because the man is the head of the household, and for other religious reasons, he is in control of his family, even physically. There is no mechanism instantiated within the law to limit the control of the man over the woman. Thus, in a society where man is dominant and his actions within the family are sheltered by law, he can easily coerce his wife to either vote one way or not vote at all. Patriarchy within the private sphere still lies at the heart of Saudi women’s struggle for true emancipation from male oppression, and this seemingly illusionary attempt at suffrage does not target the true issue at hand. With regards to how this attempt at suffrage is failing Saudi women in the public sphere, one must not forget that society is still utterly male dominated, with a King as executor for all branches of power, as well as a moral force to enforce fundamentalist Islam. The King as an entity wholly encapsulates patriarchy and should be regarded as a symbol of male suppression of women for the reasons listed above, as well as the persistence of nepotism favouring males. Additionally, liberal feminists strive for a liberal democratic system, falsely believing that the solution to patriarchy is to assist women through anti-discrimination laws to compete on the same basis as men in the liberal democratic system. However such a hope is not feasible within Saudi Arabia. Working within the state is impossible as women are almost entirely isolated from political participation. Liberal feminists provide a shallow, politically structural approach, but simply allowing women to compete for power will not solve the fundamental, deep-seated issues of patriarchal dominance. On a final note, linking into this idealist model for liberal feminists, one could argue that such a concept is Western-oriented. This model fails to account for the environment it would be implemented in. A complete reversal within the political, social, cultural, judicial, and religious relations of Saudi Arabia to fit a Western model of democracy and freedom would only invoke chaos on a society that has only understood society through its own Islamic, authoritarian lens. The liberal principle of ‘add women and stir’ is implausible for numerous reasons. One reason, which has not already been highlighted, is employment rates for women with relation to the foreign workforce. Roughly 10 million of Saudi Arabia’s workforce are foreigners, which is staggering when compared to Saudi women’s 13% of Saudi Arabia’s workforce, as of 2015. Despite being 51% of all Saudi university graduates, women are still oppressed from the inherent injustice within patriarchal society which inhibits their attempts at replacing the foreign workforce and inching towards true emancipation through economic independence as a possible step forward.

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