Human Rights

Saudi Arabia’s Feminist Revolution Has Begun

The kingdom is reportedly allowing women to ride bicycles. How generous of them, writes David Keyes.

Hassan Ammar/AP

Saudi Arabia takes baby steps to a whole new level. This week, a leading Saudi newspaper reported that women in the desert kingdom are now free to ride bicycles. Female riders must still wear head-to-toe coverings, be accompanied by a male guardian, and ride in restricted areas and only for purposes of “entertainment”—not transportation. But don’t sweat the small stuff, right? The feminist revolution has begun.

It’s hard to beat Saudi Arabia’s dismal record on women’s rights. The kingdom enforces gender apartheid, forbids women from traveling without a man’s permission, and bans them from driving cars. Lest one thinks Saudi Arabia is medieval in its thinking, the government uses the most modern technologies to treat women as second-class citizens. Automatic text messages are now sent to male guardians if a woman tries to leave the country.

Shortly before President Obama met King Abdullah in 2010, famed Saudi women’s-rights activist, Wajeha Al-Huweidar, penned an open letter to the U.S. president: “As I’m watching the Gulf of Mexico, birds which are totally covered with black oil stain—I can relate to their suffering as a Saudi woman. These birds can hardly move: they have no control over their lives, and they cannot fly freely to go to a place where they can feel safe. This describes Saudi women’s lives. I know that kind of pain. I have been living it most of my life.”

Can biking help change this? On condition of anonymity, one of Saudi Arabia’s leading bloggers told me, “Saudis are mocking the announcement as an April Fools’ joke. The government wants to keep the people busy from the real problem of corruption. There is so much corruption. They are really smart in distracting people from the main issues. Who the hell needs to hear about women riding bikes now?” What would he have preferred to hear, I ask. “As a start, that women don’t need male guardians.”

Al-Huweidar agrees. “The guardianship system law is a slavery law which is applied on women,” she told me. “That law made men masters and women their servants. Men control all aspects of women’s lives from the day they’re born until the day they die.”

Most Americans would never know this from the Saudi-American lovefest, which has everything to do with oil and arms and little to do values or human rights. At times, it seems that no Saudi action, no matter how draconian, will bring about serious American pressure.

Last March, the government-appointed grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, called for all churches in the Arabian Peninsula to be destroyed. In December, the religious police arrested 41 people for “plotting to celebrate Christmas.” Hamza Kashgari was jailed for a few tweets questioning religion, Khaled Johani was imprisoned for giving an interview to the BBC and weeks ago two of the most famous human rights activists were locked away on trumped up charges. Saudis could not even object freely as the government passed a new amendment banning any criticism of the “good reputation” of political and religious leaders.

Aside from boilerplate platitudes from the State Department, no sustained high-level pressure was brought against the Saudi dictatorship. Instead, the United States sold the kingdom $60 billion worth of arms. Whereas in the 1970s, America conditioned “most favored nation” status to the Soviet Union on improvements in human rights, the largest arms deal in American history passed without any meaningful pressure on Saudi Arabia.

When Prince Naif was appointed heir to the Saudi throne, President Obama said, “I congratulate King Abdullah and the Saudi people on the selection of Prince Naif as crown prince. We in the United States know and respect him for his strong commitment to combating terrorism and supporting regional peace and security.” He added, “The United States looks forward to continuing our close partnership with Crown Prince Naif in his new capacity as we strengthen the deep and longstanding friendship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”

Saudis knew a different reality. For three and a half decades, Naif oversaw the ministry of the interior, which brutally repressed liberals and dissidents. Women like Amina bint Nasser were beheaded for “sorcery” and men like Hadi al-Mutif were jailed for decades for joking about religion.

When Naif died, cleric Nimr al Nimr spoke for many Saudis when he asked —rhetorically—“Why shouldn't we be happy at the death of the man who imprisoned and killed our children? This is the man who spread fear and terror, so why shouldn't we rejoice?” No surprise that Nimr himself was arrested last July.

It is easy to make a realist’s case for the U.S.-Saudi alliance. We need their oil so how they treat their own people should be of little concern to us. But turning a blind eye to human rights in the Middle East has brought neither security nor stability. Instead, it has exacerbated extremist trends and undercut Western credibility.

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Allowing women to ride bicycles is nice enough. But far from relaxing global pressure on the Saudi dictatorship, it should inspire activists and governments to redouble their efforts to end gender apartheid in the kingdom.