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Islamic feminism and the strategic framework Saudi Vision2030: deconstructing a stereotype

Updated: Jan 3, 2023

Cover picture. Source https://www.sustg.com/commentary-on-saudi-arabias-vision-2030-dont-miss-the-point/

Abstract


In 2016 Chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud approved the strategic framework Saudi Vision2030, in order to “make the heart of the Arab and Islamic world, a global engine for investment and a hub that connects three continents (Europe, Asia, Africa)”. As a lot of the political actions focus on 49% of the population that is young and female, the International Community sees the reforms as a sign of changes resulting from the activity of Saudi “Islamic feminism” without considering the local contexts, but, especially, without highlighting what is behind Saudi Vision2030.


1. Introduction


Saudi Vision2030 strategic framework, presented in 2016 by the current crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, envisages several actions to involve women, namely in the labour market. Several reforms have been proposed to grant Saudi women more freedom; the International Community itself enthusiastically greeted it as a progressive gender-sensitive set of reforms. However, at the same time, many women’s rights activists are still imprisoned, and political detentions continue to exist in Saudi Arabia. Then, is this a contradiction? What is beyond the Saudi Vision2030 programme? What is its social-political background? Is the crown prince just a misunderstood feminist or is his plan just a façade to conceal its interests rather than supporting the already strong Saudi women’s rights activism?

Source https://www.britannica.com/place/Saudi-Arabia

2. SaudiVision2030 programme and its background


In 2016, the Saudi Council of Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA), chaired by crown prince (appointed in 2017) and deputy minister Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, launched the Saudi Vision2030 strategic framework, monitored by the same promulgating authority, and funded by the Public Investment Fund (PIF).


The actions mainly aim to boost national activities and restore the country’s image on the international stage, making the country "the heart of the Arab and Islamic world, a global engine for investment and a hub linking three continents (Europe, Asia, Africa), while improving the quality of life of its inhabitants".

Source https://maps-saudi-arabia.com/saudi-arabia-location-on-world-map

Despite the latest events, Saudi Arabia wants to regain its role as a Sunni leader in an anti-Shiite perspective and come back as a tiebreaker in the regional game between Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Iran, with the support of the International Community winking at foreign capital[1].

Source https://twitter.com/vision2030saudi/status/772314955802484736

On the one hand, SaudiVision2030 is a social-political project aiming at reforming the economic model adopted so far based on modern production methods, which was not going hand in hand with a transformation of the traditional society. On the other hand, it is a plan influenced by the averagely highly educated new generations who often migrated abroad aspiring to greater social and labour inclusion. Increasingly urbanised and multi-ethnic, the country has promoted health care and family protection policies, resulting in a high birth rate and a young population. Family policies are part of the broader legal framework of the government Basic Law, al-Niẓām al-Asāsī li al-Hukm, issued in 1992, whose watchword is uniqueness: religious, legislative, political, ethnic and social uniqueness, tightened around the pact between the central power and Wahhabism. Together, they promote and ensure the rights of citizens and their cultural traditions. Criticism of the government is allowed, but only in the dedicated spaces of the several Councils chaired by the king, who remains at the apex of the political and judicial system in a society characterised by strong tribal identities, a powerful factor of social control influencing even women status, including in the labour market, widely taken into account in the Saudi Vision2030.


3. Target Saudi Vision2030, why women?


The policies supporting women of Saudi Vision2030, despite being hailed as means to advance women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, and as crucial social political reforms to achieve gender equality by most of Western feminism, follow the path adopted over the last two decades, responding to a precise strategy [2]. Although the country signed the 1981 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the document was not taken as a reference for the draft of SaudiVision2030.


The Saudi female component accounts for 49% of the population, approximately 33,699,947 people, with an annual growth rate of 2%. Despite an average age of 28 years, and a significant presence of both female students and workers, especially in education and health, often exceeding the proportion of the male workforce, they little contribute to national economic growth: “unemployment rate of women is more than five times higher than men unemployment rate”[3].


These numbers show that women are a vital resource[4]. Indeed, one of the commitments of Saudi Vision2030 is making the labour market more accessible and attractive for women by increasing their participation in the workforce from 17% to 25% by 2020, and from 22% to 30% by 2030 (according to the Delivery Plan)[5]. Saudi Vision 2030 also plans to introduce a travel and transport support programme tailored for women and an assistance scheme for working mothers. These measures will positively affect Saudi Arabia’s image and potentially attract new massive investments from a specific target group. In the summer of 2018, women gained permission to drive. The following diagram shows the critical impact in terms of revenue of this measure.

However, these innovations seem to be more smoke and mirrors than actual deep progressive reforms. Indeed, considering the international, regional, and national context and all the stakeholders involved, it is impossible to claim that the crown prince is a feminist open to change.


As evidence of this, many activists, including women’s rights activists, are in jail on charges of endangering the countries security, as widely reported.


4. Women’s rights activism in Saudi Arabia


Gender activism is one of those phenomena that arose in the framework of the debate of the historical‑cultural revival in the Arab-Muslim worlds, an-Nahdah, between the 19th and 20th centuries. Taking a national dimension at first and then moving into the global Umma, gender activism has become less and less elitist and has often expressed itself in an anti-colonial and anti-imperialist key. In particular, the definition of Islamic feminism[1] arose in the 1990s after the first Gulf War (1990-1991)[2]. The main challenge is to reinterpret the Muslim tradition enshrined in the Qur'an and the Sunnah from a gender perspective through independent research on religious sources, ijtihad and tafsir. The methodologies provided by the historical and social disciplines serve as a means to study female figures who have made the history of Islam. The core issue is the complaint against the sexist interpretation of the Sharia by the law, fiqh. What is called into questioned is not the sacredness of the Texts but the temporality of their interpretations. This point of view changes according to the local context, and the political positions have to be considered as a dynamic continuum[3], where the centrality of the Muslim religion is an individual and collective reinvention legitimized through valid cultural patterns, totally in line with the local and global challenges of the 21st century.

To understand Saudi activism for women’s rights, ethnic, religious, cultural and social-economic aspects shall be considered. The boundaries deriving from these aspects impose different codes (concerning clothes, access to the labour market and mobility) that give rise to spaces of struggle that open up simultaneously with broad social changes.

Western perceptions of discrimination based solely on the concept of gender are irrelevant: Saudi activism, though immersed in a patriarchal society, is not directly countering this since other basic needs or privileges such as clean water, accessible food and care are still lacking. Discrimination does not concern the existence of women-only places: many women prefer separated environments feeling empowered in a culture that values the differences between men and women. Similarly, due to the constant rise in the cost of living since the 1990s, single-income families have gradually become unsustainable. The entry of many women into the labour market and their consequent economic independence have not eventually translated into greater freedom of decision-making for many, quite the opposite, for some, it led to further restrictions and limitations; this, however, promoted the opening of new sites for other struggles[4].

Saudi activists fall into four major political groups: the libralliyya, which want greater female participation in public life; the huquqiyya, pointing out their demands within the broader framework of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; then the feminist groups, nasawiyya Islamiyya, who thinks that change is possible only through the interpretation of sources; lastly, the conservatives, muhafitha, they consider female emancipation by her role within Islam in a complete anti-colonial and anti-imperialist key [5].

Furthermore, each political orientation has two strands, one prone to complete criticism towards the state and the other to total complicity. Within these general classifications, some groups have a formal association structure, while others are more like fluid networks interacting virtually through social media without leadership. Other groups are formed in reaction to an event and then quickly dissolve, or, conversely, have a permanent pillar with which members identify regardless of what happens. However, many activists do not work in groups trying to go unnoticed and be perceived as more innocuous by the central powers and thus be less at risk of being imprisoned.

Despite all the different points of view, there is a common thread of pursuing programs of social change, mostly avoiding the label of feminist[6], preferring womanist to move away from a salvific approach and a narrative without place and time that do not belong to such social and political contexts. Finally, regardless of their structure, activists’ groups are influenced by new digital technologies that provide new means of discussion and exchange, crossing national boundaries.

As an example, some activists take their inspiration from Western values such as the Musawah or the MENA Rights Group; or some seek confrontation through intercultural and interreligious dialogue: ALQST, Kaiciid Dialogue Centre; others adopt a mixed approach such as the GIERFI; or some support an international collective space for women who live under the Islamic law or who are influenced by it as WLUML.

This scenario is dotted with clashes between different viewpoints. For instance, in 2009, in response to the appeal of writer W. al- Huweidar for the abolition of the mahram system, princess Jawaher bint Jalawi launched a counter-campaign called “My Guardian Knows What's Best For Me" arguing that the male guardianship system benefits the honour of Saudi women in a view opposed to the Westernization of the principles of Islam.


5. Conclusion


Saudi Vision 2030 is not a plan aiming for a profound change of the political and social establishment in Saudi Arabia, and the label of Islamic feminism does not take roots in the diverse, vibrant and dynamic context of Saudi activism for women’s rights. Indeed, it must be placed within a system shaped by ethnic, religious, cultural, and socio-economic elements whose boundaries determine several codes. The freedoms related to gender granted by the program have the precise purpose of attracting foreign investment and consolidating the central power with the support of the International Community as the country’s image has lost its lustre due to the latest events.


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Note


[1] Saudi Arabia is indeed open to international capital that can save it from the risks of depending on a single commodity, i.e. oil, subject to price fluctuations, especially after economic and financial crises, including the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic https://www.internazionale.it/notizie/2020/06/16/arabia-saudita-fondo-investimento . Saudi Arabia participated in the G20 with the same goals at the end of November https://www.consilium.europa.eu/it/meetings/international-summit/2020/11/21-22/# [2] These strategies do not seem to be the result of the enduring feminist activists’ struggle in Saudi Arabia: Categorizing feminism, atheism, homosexuality as crimes exposes the Kingdom’s dangerous intolerance - Amnesty International . These actions are mainly adopted when the country needs to restore a positive image before the International Community. For instance, in 2001, after 9/11, Saudi authorities granted ID cards to women for the first time in the Kingdom’s history. In 2009, Noura bint Abdullah al- Fayez became the first woman to hold a cabinet-level office in Saudi Arabia. In 2013, three women were appointed Vice-Presidents of the Commission on Human Rights and Petitions (Thurayya Obeid), the Commission for Information and Culture (Zainab Abu Talib), the Commission for Health and the Environment (Lubna Al Ansari). Hanan bint Abdurrahim bin Mutlaq Al-Ahmadi became the first woman on the Advisory Council, Majlis al-Shura. In December 2015, women voted and were elected to administrative positions for the first time. In February 2018, with the formation of the new government, Tamader Al Rammah Yousef Mogbel Al Rammah was appointed Deputy Minister of Labour. The following year, Saudi Arabia appointed its first female ambassador to the US: princess Rima bint Bandar al Saud, known for defending women's rights in the country; eventually, from that year on, women have been able to hold a passport and travel alone, without the authorisation of a (male) guardian. However, the mahram system has never been abolished, instead, it evolves together with new technologies (see the Absher application https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=sa.gov.moi&hl=it&gl=US ) [3] General Authority for Statistics, Statistical Analysis and Decision Support Center, Saudi women the partner of success, 2019, pp. 26 e seg.; Info Mercati Esteri, Arabia Saudita, 2019 [4] Just to get an idea of the economic impact of the female population involved, see PwC, Women driving the transformation of the KSA automotive market, 2018 https://www.pwc.com/m1/en/publications/documents/women-driving-the-transformation-of-the-ksa-automotive-market.pdf [5] For an overview, see Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Vision 2030, 2016, pp. 39 e seg.; Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, National Transformation Program, Delivery Plan 2018-2020, pp. 78 and following. [6] Here described as women's rights activism to try to account for the great debate around the term feminism, which has historical-cultural reference patterns outside the Arab-Muslim world. [7] For a historical discussion of the subject, see PEPICELLI, R. Femminismo islamico. Corano, diritti, riforme, 2010; and ABDALLAH LATTE, S. Islamic Feminism Twenty Years On: The Economy Of A Debate And New Fields of Research, 2010 [8] Anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fzf2D43wcTc&app=desktop emphasises how crucial it is to contextualise women's rights activism, as the Qur'an does not precisely define the concept of justice, it merely provides examples and instances of injustice, and in it, the concepts of justice and equity are understood as equal opportunities, not equal rights [9] HOZA, J. L., Is there Feminism in Saudi Arabia?, Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 20, Issue 2, University of Florida, 2018/2019 [10] However, this categorisation leaves out foreign women, undocumented migrants and domestic workers [11] This avoidance suggests that Saudi women feel little affinity with Western feminism. Many young Saudi women express their consent by breaking the rules of the codes. In this regard, we recommend reading the book by PEPICELLI, R., Il velo nell'Islam. Storia, politica, estetica, 2012, and the reference authors.

Bibliography

  • ABDALLAH LATTE, S. Islamic Feminism Twenty Years On: The Economy Of A Debate And New Fields of Research , Critique Internationale, Vol. 46, SciencePo les Presses, Paris, 2010

  • BIN ABDULAZIZ AL-SAUD, F., Basic Law of Governance, Riyad 1992

  • The Embassy of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Arabia, Saudi Arabia’s Reforms and Programs to Empower Women, Washington, 2019

  • General Authority for Statistics, Statistical Analysis and Decision Support Center, Saudi women The partner of success, 2019

  • HASSAN, R., Equal Before Allah? Woman-man equality in the Islamic Tradition, Women living under Muslim laws, Dossier 5-6, 1988

  • HOZA, J. L., Is there Feminism in Saudi Arabia?, Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 20, Issue 2, University of Florida, 2018/2019

  • Info Mercati Esteri, Arabia Saudita, 2019

  • Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, National Transformation Program, Delivery Plan 2018-2020, Vision 2030

  • Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Vision 2030, 2016

  • PEPICELLI, R., Femminismo islamico. Corano, diritti, riforme, Roma, 2010; Il velo nell'Islam. Storia, politica, estetica, 2012

  • PwC, Women driving the transformation of the KSA automotive market, 2018

  • VANZAN, A., Lo sguardo dell’Altra. Donne dell’Islam e nuovi femminismi orientalisti, Altre Modernità, Università degli Studi di Milano, n°8, Milano, 2012

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