States in the Arabian Peninsula have maintained, and in some cases strengthened, their authoritarian structures in the shadow of the recent Arab uprisings. In spite of this, the US government and many of its allies continue to herald a liberalizing shift in places such as Saudi Arabia or Kuwait largely on the basis of potential reforms meant to further women’s rights. Indeed, some of these states have taken actions to heighten their domestic and international legitimacy through increased political representation for women. However, such efforts are not necessarily indicative of structural or much-needed changes. Rather, they constitute part and parcel of a mechanism of rule that aims to preserve the existing power of regimes in the Arabian Peninsula and the authoritarian structures that undermine the political, economic, and social emancipation of all of their citizens.
Ruling regimes such as the one in Saudi Arabia have been able to placate different interest groups, including women, with patronage networks and public services made possible by oil revenues, especially in the wake of the Arab revolutions. Rising internal dissent directed toward politically restrictive government practices has compelled regimes in the peninsula to make more concessions to women in an attempt to maintain and further entrench the structure and power of the state. Some even promoted and financed the cultivation of civil society organizations or groups that are not affiliated with the regime on the condition that they advance their interests by organizing exclusively under the jurisdiction of the state. Doing so has tempered what little criticism rulers in the Arabian Peninsula receive while ensuring these groups’ loyalties to the regimes that endorse them.
It is in the context of social and political transformations and crises in the peninsula that women, marginalized as they are by their gender, class, ethnicity, or religious affiliation, became trapped in alliances with the authoritarian state. As they struggled to attain more political, social, and legal rights, they accepted what the state offered them in terms of limited gains, increased visibility, and an otherwise unavailable avenue for pursuing their self-empowerment. However, women’s participation in these state-driven enterprises only facilitated the preservation of the status quo. In varying regional and historical contexts (the former Soviet Union and North African countries for example), as shown by Rema Hammami and Eileen Kuttab in their 1999 work “The Palestinian Women’s Movement: Strategies Towards Freedom and Democracy,” women’s movements that became interlinked with policies of authoritarian regimes lost their agency and failed to develop. In fact, state-sponsored feminism has hindered the quest for gender equity instead of resolving the “woman question,” that is, the fundamental issues of women’s suffrage and their changing political and social roles in the public sphere. Instead, state-sponsored feminism has worked to contain and appropriate women’s mobilization.
False Starts and Wrong Turns
In January 2013, for the first time in the country’s history, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia appointed thirty women to the Shura Council. The latter was a nominal effort to promote the appearance of women’s representation in the political system, largely in response to the widespread controversy over restrictions on both driving and travel for women in the kingdom. Despite the much-anticipated move, the 150-person national advisory council has four times as many male as female members. No easing of restrictions on women has yet occurred and it remains to be seen what influence the female Shura members will be able to exercise. Little else has changed regarding the institutionalized ideologies of masculinity and patriarchal power, which continue to marginalize Saudi women by confining them to the private sphere. While the monarch appears to advocate for women’s empowerment, his regime has moved to co-opt the women’s movement as a means to serve regime interests. It is becoming increasingly apparent that King Abdullah’s appointments are mere formalities, meant superficially to convey progress while maintaining power through the status quo.
In the spring of 2009, four women were elected to the Kuwaiti parliament for the first time after having won the right to vote and run for office four years earlier. While several bills granting full political rights to women have been proposed since the 1970s, they have consistently encountered opposition from the majority of the National Assembly, including both conservative and liberal members. Kuwaiti lawmakers even rejected a decree that Emir Jaber al-Sabah issued in 1999 granting women the right to vote and hold public office. They argued that the ruler issued the bill while the parliament was out of session. It was only in May 2005 that Kuwait’s parliament approved a women’s suffrage bill, just weeks after denying women the right to participate in city council elections. At the time, then Prime Minister Shaykh Sabah al-Jaber al-Sabah was attempting to distance and indeed contrast himself from the conservative element in the political system in order to demonstrate his so-called progressive tendencies, especially for the benefit of US leadership. Intended to convey a more democratic and liberal environment, the Kuwaiti regime was ensuring its own survival with this political strategy.
Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC), the institutionalized post-uprising reconciliation process, concluded earlier this year with a proposal fora thirty percent quota for women in parliament. Endorsed by President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, the initiative would ostensibly ensure that voices of women in the country are heard. However, until implemented and demonstrated to be something more than pretense, this proposal should be read as merely a symbolic gesture aimed at showcasing the Yemeni government`s so-called agenda for democratic change. The quota, after all, is only a recommendation for the new and as yet unwritten constitution, not a guaranteed provision. Further, the policy may or may not be implemented even if it garners enough support to be enacted; it could fail on the ground or simply be an avenue for politicians to promote the party line via women. Nonetheless, the NDC’s actions have earned Yemen the support of the international community, eliciting praise from the US government for an NDC “inclusive” of women. Despite such praise, Yemeni military and security initiatives, and not programs for political, economic, and social change, remain the major recipients of US funding. Calling for social reforms, especially to further women’s rights, remains a way for both the Yemeni and US governments to ostensibly acknowledge social issues but focus efforts on maintaining their status quo priorities.
In Bahrain, the selection of a female minister of state for information appears to be another demonstration of the state embracing the feminist cause for its own benefit. The Khalifa regime, keen to emphasize its “inclusive” politics to the international community, selected Samira Rajab for this position in the spring of 2012. It was a strategic distraction from the human rights abuses that the regime has inflicted on activists participating in anti-government uprisings since February 2011. The appointment of Rajab—herself a controversial figure due to her support for Saddam Hussein and the promotion of sectarian tensions—evoked a convenient narrative that the monarchy propagated to illustrate its so-called progressive and liberal agenda in the midst of a brutal crackdown on Bahraini protesters and the increasing marginalization of the majority Shi‘i population.
Assembling an Independent Movement
Across the Arabian Peninsula, the elections and discretionary appointment of women do not reveal substantive gains made toward women’s empowerment and gender equality. Rather, they are token moves by the state to appropriate women into their political projects, discussed in depth by Madawi Al-Rasheed in her latest work. In the aforementioned case of Bahrain, for example, the state capitalizes on the dichotomous representation of women in the public sphere: placing emphasis on the trope of a glorified “liberated” Arab woman who is an indication of progressive politics rather than on images of women systematically subjected to the marginalizing decisions of autocratic regimes. Isolated political appointments are short-term solutions designed to appease and co-opt domestic activist groups, convey a reformist image to international observers, and reinforce the divisions between conservative and liberal factions in order to neutralize any threat to the regime’s survival. There is a lack of comprehensive policies that address systemic gender inequalities, leaving the state’s foundational structures of institutionalized gender discrimination intact.
Women must be able to operate from a separate power base grounded in economic and social independence, one that develops parallel to the advancement of political representation within state structures. Instead of either being complicit with or participating in regimes’ symbolic gestures and empty promises of future change, women’s movements and their supporters should push for actions in policy and law—in areas of education, health, employment, political liberties, etc.—that will outlast an elevation of any one individual’s position. Women disenfranchised by the state should thus strive to disassociate themselves from it by receiving independent funding, building prominence through higher visibility in media and the international community, harnessing the support of their communities and civil society, leveraging the state’s need for legitimacy from women through increased demands, and establishing solidarity through connections across feminist movements. This will give women aiming to destabilize the state’s patriarchal hegemony the opportunity to dictate their own agendas, create and fulfill their own visions, and help to weaken the control of the state over societal development. If the state continues to manipulate and co-opt the struggle for gender equity while appearing to address the concerns of the international human rights community, women will undeniably remain in the margins.