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Vogue princess is hijacking Saudi women activists' struggle

The truth about Saudi princesses is that they have truly hijacked the women’s struggle in favour of the old propaganda about the progressive role of royalty

On 15 May, the Saudi regime arrested several veteran women activists who had been campaigning to lift the driving ban since 1990. Women will be able to drive on 24 June and Saudi publicity promoted images of the first women who were given their driving licences by officials.

But it seems that the Saudi regime gives rights with one hand only to take women's freedom with another.

Saudi's new turn

To add insult to injury, Vogue Arabia published a well-Photoshopped picture of Princess Haifa bint Abdullah, the daughter of deceased king Abdullah, in the driving seat of an expensive car, dressed in white, against a background of sand dunes, to publicise the approaching great day when women will be driving.

It is not surprising that Vogue, the glossy women's magazine in which one struggles to find a paragraph worth reading amid page after page of publicity and advertising of luxury consumer goods, published such an out-of-context and exclusionary royal photo.

The photo is in line with the new turn in Saudi Arabia in which the country is constructed as a playground for the forthcoming promised affluence, openness and prosperity.

While the image of the princess driving through the desert, dressed in white, is constructed as a symbol of the coming revolutionary change, detained Saudi women activists, who had campaigned for women's rights since the 90s, are banished behind bars

In this narrative, women are central as today the well-being of nations is measured by how much women can spend, with their purchasing power taken as an index of empowerment.

Their fundamental right to live as equal citizens is often swept under the carpet by such superficial propaganda. Vogue is not concerned with these rights, but with how women should look to fit in with a service economy that needs pretty faces to mask its failure to provide for all a decent life, a minimum wage and freedom from control and repression.

Vogue Arabia's June 2018 cover sparked outrage online (Screengrab)
Vogue promotes a kind of consumer culture among women. It deliberately lures them into conspicuous consumption, with fashion and make-up as empowerment tools.

While a minority of Saudi women are avid consumers of the advertised luxury goods in the Saudi market, on social media and under pseudonyms many women activists reacted negatively to the promised profile of Snow White in the desert posing in the driving seat, while the Seven Dwarfs remain detained in Saudi prisons.

A progressive royalty?

The promotion of avant-garde princesses is integral to the Saudi narrative about the progressive royalty. Since the creation of the kingdom in 1933, the founder's sister Noura has been constructed as a learned and strong woman who supported her brother to spread Saudi hegemony across Arabia.

Her name was usually invoked in the 'jihadi wars' that Ibn Saud launched against the Arabian population to return them to true Islam. His war cry was Akhu Noura, the brother of Noura, to inspire him in domesticating Arabia and controlling its population.

The masculinity of his successive raids had to be feminised, implying that the wars he initiated were meant to protect the honour first of his own women and second Arabian women.

Under king Faisal, his wife, Iffat, and their daughters - especially Loulouwa and Sara - found their place in this narrative as pioneers in spreading education and charitable work for the benefit of women. The introduction of mass education for girls is attributed to their first initiatives and efforts, thus undermining the contribution of men and women who had called for girls' school in the first half of the 20th century.

The progressive princesses overshadow the writings of a whole generation of intellectuals such as Muhammad Awad, Ahmad Sibai, Abdullah al-Qasimi, Sarah bu Humaid, and Samira Khashoggi, who early on called for women’s education.

With the promotion of global business and entrepreneurial spirit, Amira al-Tawil, the wife of Walid bin Talal, came to play a role as the princess-in-vogue. This lasted for more than a decade with sensational images and interviews available to be consumed by those hungry for a glimpse into the opulence of royal life. But Amira is now divorced and her husband suffered serious humiliation after his detention at the Ritz-Carlton in November.

Dividing the family

There were other unfortunate princesses who attracted media attention, often called dissident women by the royal family. Among them was businesswoman Basma bint Saud, dubbed the princess of Acton by the British media, where she lived after moving away from Saudi Arabia.

There were also the sisters of the Vogue princess, who were allegedly held against their will by King Abdullah and deprived of their freedom, according to their Jordanian mother, Anoud al-Fayez, the daughter of a Jordanian minister, who had been offered to the king as a wife when she was 16 years old.

Of course, the marriage did not last and she sought exile in London, leaving her two daughters as hostages in the place, according to her interviews on British television.

Perhaps Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman wanted to promote Haifa as the leading driving woman to humiliate her brother, ex-commander of the Saudi National Guard, Mitab bin Abdullah, who was also detained in the Ritz-Carlton together with Walid. Mohammad bin Salman is playing the game of dividing his own family, detaining some and promoting others, to weaken them further.

Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud speaks on 28 February 2018 at the Atlantic Council in Washington,DC (AFP)
While the image of the princess driving through the desert, dressed in white, is constructed as a symbol of the coming revolutionary change, detained Saudi women activists who had campaigned for women's rights since the 90s are banished behind bars, with serious treason charges that may lead to either beheading or long prison sentences. 

Other women activists are banned from talking to the media lest they claim they had anything to do with lifting the ban on driving. Today, foreign journalists, flooding to Saudi Arabia, will struggle to find a woman to interview, other than those designated by the government who can parrot praise in favour of Mohammad bin Salman, as any reference to the work of the women’s movement may lead to charges such as communicating with foreign entities and detention.

Hijacking women's struggle

Saudi women who will benefit from lifting the ban on driving are more likely to be rushing to work and to get children to school through the congested avenues and allies of Riyadh, rather than posing behind the wheel in the middle of sand dunes.

They will no doubt find driving on roads designed to copy large American cities, rather than a functioning capital friendly to both drivers and pedestrians, a daunting experience. They have to navigate a harsh masculine urban space to safely reach their destination.  

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Vogue and the princess have truly hijacked the women’s struggle in favour of the old propaganda about the progressive role of royalty. Saudi men are accustomed to not being given credit for change and progress in the kingdom as all the success is always attributed to princes, but now princesses join the race to further marginalise and exclude the contribution of other women.

The truth about Saudi princesses is that most of the time they are in fierce competition with each other for the limited and orchestrated appearances in the public sphere, but now they are destined to hijack the struggle of Saudi women activists.

The struggle of ordinary Saudi women will continue. Perhaps the well-manicured Vogue princess will not deter them from continuing a long battle in which they will definitely be victorious.

- Professor Madawi al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender. On Twitter: @MadawiDr

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A Saudi woman practises driving in Riyadh on 29 April 2018, ahead of the lifting of the ban on women driving (AFP).

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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