Author: Karen McVeigh

Posted on: The Guardian |  May 7th,2018

Text: A film intended to celebrate progress on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia has been condemned by experts and rights groups as a “dreadful piece of propaganda” that will serve only to reinforce the existing culture of discrimination in the country.

Launched by the Saudi-based organisation Alwaleed Philanthropies, one of the world’s largest private philanthropic foundations, the film aims to highlight reforms in the deeply conservative state, where women can now attend sports events and will soon be able to drive cars.

It shows a woman being encouraged by a man to drive a car, as well as a woman in traditional Abaya being urged by a man to take a wingsuit flight – similar to skydiving – off a cliff.

But the tone of the footage – which shows men urging women to follow their dreams and culminates with the tag line: “Next to every great woman, a man believing in her” – has been criticised as patronising and discriminatory.

Dr Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics’ Middle East Centre, questioned the commercial value of the film and branded it a “dreadful piece of propaganda” that showed only women dependent on men.

“My first reaction was this is a terrible campaign for Toyoto jeeps – it would not appeal to Saudi women who want to drive through the street of Riadh to get to work,” said al-Rasheed. “It focuses on women protected by a man.

“But there are a high percentage – millions – of women in Saudi Arabia who are unmarried, widows and those who choose not to marry.”

Both men and women in Saudi Arabia are patronised and deprived of basic human rights, said al-Rasheed, “but women suffer double the discrimination. They are not legal citizens.”

The campaign seemed to be promoting the idea of equality in Saudi Arabia to the outside world, she said.

A UN rights watchdog that has welcomed recent decisions on driving and allowing women to launch their own businesses said last month that, if discrimination against women is to end, Saudi Arabia must abolish its pervasive system of male guardianship and give women access to justice.

The UN committee on the elimination of discrimination against women said the state should enforce a recent order that would entitle all women to obtain a passport, travel or study abroad, choose their residency, and access healthcare “without having to seek their guardian’s consent”.

Suad Abu-Dayyeh, the Middle East and North African consultant for Equality Now, said: “This film is not accurate, it is not fair and it is not just. Of course, we should recognise the role of men in supporting women’s rights. But it should not be the core of the film.

“We know in Saudi Arabia, women are very restricted according to their families, their culture, religious beliefs and according to the system. Their basic rights are denied. They can’t take a courageous stance towards the liberation of women. They can’t transcend that reality.”

Alwaleed Philanthropies said the film, which is headed by the Saudi princess Lamia bint Majed al Saud, was inspired by UN Women’s #HeForShe campaign. Its launch coincided with a wider debate in Saudi Arabia about whether the end of the driving ban signalled the start of more wholesale reforms.

The princess told the Guardian she hoped the campaign, dedicated to men and women, would challenge stereotypes. “We want to celebrate the generations of Saudi women who have pioneered change, as well as the Saudi men who have supported them in their pursuit of empowerment – this campaign is first and foremost dedicated to those local heroes,” she said.

“But we also want to reach an international audience in order to challenge some stereotypes of Saudi women as being oppressed and Saudi men as oppressors. We want to highlight the role that many Saudi men have played as supportive allies in this journey, and encourage more to do the same.

Asked whether she believed the lifting of the driving ban was the prelude to greater equality, she said it was “a step in the right direction”.

“Lasting change cannot be delivered overnight, but women are securing more and more opportunities to be independent and to be empowered within the kingdom. For many people within Saudi Arabia and across the world, the driving ban was symbolic of Saudi women’s lack of freedom. Lifting the ban will have huge practical implications for how Saudi women live and work, but it is also a clear sign from our leadership that as a society we are ready to move forward and modernise.”

She said the inclusion of sky diving was to challenge stereotypes of a woman dressed in her Abaya and also to “emphasise the message that the sky is the limit for Saudi women, especially when everyone in society works together”.

Abu-Dayyeh, who works with civil society groups all over the Middle East to promote women’s rights, said that while she welcomed progress made by the Saudi government, it was “very far away” from gender equality.

Abu-Dayyeh said: “We have well-established civil society groups in Jordan and Lebanon. But there are no civil society organisations in Saudi Arabia. We have courageous female activists who are working separately, often to great cost. If we are talking about the battle for women’s rights in the region, we need to double that fight in Saudi Arabia.”

Civil society does not exist in the kingdom.

Sama Awaida, director of the women’s study centre in Palestine, said the film was sending out the wrong message.

“I don’t understand how it can be about women’s empowerment,” said Awaida. “Women’s empowerment is a long struggle, but it is about empowering women to be independent of men, not dependent on men.”

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