A French postcolonial and poststructural feminist ethnographer, Amélie Le Renard interviewed over 100 young Saudi women in Riyadh from 2005 to 2013. This methodology reacts against belief in universal systems such as an essential patriarchy. The urban women viewed themselves as modern and different from the backward village woman, as they move in their “parallel city” of females with its own amusement parks, schools, and mall floors. These spaces without male supervision give women a certain freedom to show off their styles. Le Renard found their acts of rebellion against the morality police and strict segregation of the sexes was for the most part minor and expressed in their appearance such as short colored hair, make-up, allowing some hair to show, wearing jeans under their abayas. Some wore T-shirts with English language slogans like “Anything boys can do, girls can do better” and “Peace and love and freedom.”[i] Some wore shoulder abayas not attached to the head, embroidered with sequins. Consumerism is valued, such as carrying a Gucci handbag. Some non-conformists secretly communicate with young men on the telephone or social media. Books by American psychologists are best-sellers.[ii]
As is true of other highly sex-segregated spaces, such as British boarding schools or Afghanistan, some young people engage in homosexuality until marriage. Even married couples can’t do much more than go to the mall for fun and many marriages (nearly a fifth) quickly end in divorce[iii], so the focus is on “homosociality” for recreation. Girls on campus walk holding hands. As in Afghanistan, some young women dress like boys under their abayas. These tomboys are called buyat, frequently seen on university campuses in what can be considered a youth subculture, and some are lesbians in buya-cute (feminine) couples.[iv]
Most of the young women Renard interviewed didn’t protest having to veil, thinking of it as showing respect to the holy shrines in their country, such as Mecca. Some did enjoy foiling the morality police (CPVPV), running away from them, ignoring their commands, or giving them a false name if stopped. One of the CPVPV police told a student, “You have pretty eyes, cover them,” she relied, “You are so rude! It’s up to you to look away!”[v] Only a minority of the younger generation of women were Islamists and she heard frequent criticism of Islamic rules in private conversations.[vi] However, women are reluctant to claim rights seen as Western and liberal. A 28-year-old journalist said, “For liberals, there are no limits. I think we need to keep our identify.” But she criticized the “rigorists” as “closed in on themselves, whereas the world is open.”[vii] They regarded King Abdullah as a reformer who encouraged women’s employment in opposition to ”rigorist” Islamists. Contraceptives are available to married women, enabling them to pursue education and careers.
The government Council of Senior ‘Ulama issues fatwas governing daily lives with an emphasis on covering their bodies—including the face, and avowing contact with men outside of family life. These policies developed from the Islamic Awakening of the 1960s, enforced by the religious police. Some young women protested their lack of freedom, such as a 28-year-old mall employee who told her, “There is no freedom here, everything is forbidden. . . you cannot even express your opinion.”[viii] Females must have their male guardian’s permission to go to school and work and are expected to accept their parent’s choice of a husband, although Renard interviewed women who had refused proposals.
The most radical rebels are the few women who lead the driving campaign since 1990, leading to the Women2Drive campaign organized in 2011. The majority of the activists are from wealthy families and lived abroad, criticized as tools of dangerous Westernization. Some other rebellions occurred, such as female students protested their university conditions in Abha in 2012, resulting in injuries to 53 of them, inflected by CPVPV, police, and campus guards.
[i] Amélie Le Renard. A Society of Young Women: Opportunities of Place, Power and Reform in Saudi Arabia. Stanford University Press, 2014, p. 109.
[ii] Le Renard, p. 161.
[iii] Nadim Kawach, “In Saudi Who is to Blame for High Divorce Rates,” Emirates 24 News, March 20, 2012.
[iv] Le Renard, p. 152.
[v] Le Renard, p. 119.
[vi] Le Renard, p. 40. P. 117.
[vii] Le Renard, p. 122.
[viii] Le Renard, p. 48.
Four of Saudi King Abdullah’s daughters (he has 38 children) charged he has imprisoned them under house arrest in the palace for 14 years for advocating more freedom for women, eradicating poverty, and release of political prisoners. The oldest sister, Sahar, praised in the jailed martyrs in a video for teaching “the meaning of freedom, rights and dignity from you revolutionary people.” Their mother lives in London and lobbied for their release taught her daughters to fight for their rights. Sahar said in an email interview they’re only allowed to go out twice a month to buy food, heavily guarded. They’re not allowed to marry, the king said to be angry that their mother didn’t give birth to a son and divorced him. When asked about the current status of women, she said women are drugged and put in mental hospitals. She wrote,
Women suffer under a brutal ‘guardianship’ system, akin to slavery. Women cannot move an inch without the approval of male guardians, a clear violation of human rights…. Women are segregated. There are signs that clearly state ‘Women are not allowed in.’ This is also true of men; signs prohibiting ‘single’ men from entering stores and restaurants.[i]
[i] Daniel Wickham, “An Interview with the Imprisoned Daughter of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah,” Muftah, June 2, 2014.