The Incredible Pettiness of Saudi 'Progress' on Women's Rights | Opinion

It's a sign of the schizophrenic rule in Saudi Arabia.

In a bid to normalize society and attract foreign investment, the authorities announced last Friday that women over 21 would be allowed to travel abroad without the permission of their male guardian.

Too many negative stories about daughters doing runners while on holiday with their families.

It followed the much–publicized decision a year ago to let women drive.

Both long overdue but laudable, nevertheless, you might say.

Except when you consider that five women who campaigned for these very reforms have been locked up in jail for more than a year, subjected to the worst kind of torture and mistreatment you can imagine.

But there is method in the split personality madness.

Imprisonment has meant an activist, like Loujain al-Hathloul, an erstwhile friend of Meghan Markle, hasn't been able to contact her 307,000 Twitter followers since March 2018—three months before the driving ban which she had filmed herself breaking was lifted.

If freed, she would no doubt expose the reforms as a cynical PR exercise designed to throw a cloak of respectability around the country when much deeper abuses exist.

Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS,) has touted himself as a reformer prepared to defy the conservative Wahhabist forces in his country and change society for the good.

But instead all around him is a constant drip of negative publicity over the murder of the Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi war in Yemen and stories of women who flee the country being hunted down using the IMEI numbers on their cellphones.

Hence Friday's announcement on women being allowed to travel abroad with getting anyone's permission, to somehow seize back the initiative.

But Loujain and her friends want the male guardianship system done away with in its entirety, not just little bits here and there.

They don't see why women should be told who they can marry, and if that marriage turns abusive, seek permission from their husband to go and live somewhere else in peace.

If things at home do get unbearable women are allowed to flee into prison-like shelters, but when the time comes to re-enter society they have to get permission from you-know-who about where they can go next, so they are back to square one.

Although the authorities now let women work and are ending discrimination in the workplace, the male guardian—usually either a father or a husband—still has to approve any job she chooses.

There is also no sign of the authorities going soft on government critics who highlight human rights abuses, such as lack of free speech and persecution of minorities.

One cleric, Salman al-Awdah, was jailed for calling for a reconciliation between the Gulf countries after the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar in June 2017.

And in Apri, five of 37 people beheaded by Saudi Arabia were gay.

It's because of this pretense that MbS is true reformer that Saudi Arabia is so touchy when another country dares to suggest this might not be the case.

The response when the Canadian foreign minister called for the still-jailed human rights activist Sama Badawi to be freed was extreme; diplomats expelled, trade and investment withdrawn, flights cancelled and foreign students relocated.

In other words, a full-on toys out the pram moment from MbS.

Another of the five, Nouf Abdulaziz, wrote a letter to be published in the event of her arrest, in which she described herself as "a writer, a reading addict since I was six-years old...a quiet girl except for the questions that storm my mind. Why is our homeland so small and tight, and why am I considered a criminal or enemy that threatens it?"

When Nouf was detained, the letter was shared by fellow women's rights activist, Mayya Al-Zahrani, who herself was then arrested publicizing it and is still being held

In 2017 Loujain appeared in a Vanity Fair photoshoot alongside Meghan Markle when she attended a One Young World Summit, hosted by the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.

Meghan, now the Duchess of Sussex, praised delegates for "speaking out against human rights violations, environmental crises, gender equality issues, discrimination and injustice."

She has gone on to marry and have her first child with Prince Harry, while Loujain has been locked up, tortured with electric shocks and sexually harassed.

What a shame, then, that the Duchess could not include Loujain, or any of the five, in her list of 15 "trailblazing" women working to improve the world that she compiled for Vogue magazine last week.

That Loujain and the others are at least as deserving of the "changemaker" title afforded to others on the list—if only for the mistreatment they have received—there can be no doubt.

Whatever the reason Markle herself had not to include these women, to have them on that list would plainly have been too controversial for a member of the British royal family, and risked a Canada-style backlash from the Saudis.

But why should we have to tolerate the Saudi royal family behaving in a manner that is totally beyond the pale, just because their de-facto ruler is tantrum-prone?

And more importantly, where is our own backlash?

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

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