Women wearing abayas (Yemen, 2014). Photo by Rod Waddington.
I would like to nominate a contender for “bravest woman in the Middle East.”
A woman identified only by her given name, Khulood, created a stir across social media in Saudi Arabia when a video originally posted on Snapchat went viral. In the clip, Khulood walks around a historic fort in Ushayqir, about 100 miles north of Riyadh. She is wearing a short skirt and a crop top, and her hair is uncovered.
Though her outfit would be unremarkable in most Western countries, it violated Saudi Arabia’s strict dress code. On Twitter, many Saudis expressed disapproval, though many others voiced their support. The Wall Street Journal translated one such message: “Had she been a foreigner, they would’ve raved over the beauty of her waistline and the attractiveness of her eyes. But because she’s Saudi, they’re after her prosecution.”
Khulood was, indeed, detained by Saudi authorities, who brought her in for questioning over her “immodest clothes.” She has since been released, though many observers have suggested that this was largely due to the international attention to her case. Other women defying the country’s harsh restrictions have been held for much longer.
Whether or not Khulood meant the Snapchat video to go viral, or reach anyone beyond its initial audience, is unclear. But even if her rebellion was a private one, she was still brave enough to venture into the desert heat without the full-length robes, known as abayas, women are supposed to wear in public under Saudi rules. This small, defiant gesture feels all the more powerful considering that she had to know the risk of venturing into any public place in the clothes she chose.
Of course, in calling her the “bravest,” we need to acknowledge that many women who push back against repressive regimes do not make international headlines. We don’t know the stories of other women, in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, who may be striking their own personal blows for recognition as full human beings and equal citizens; most such instances presumably do not go viral. In Saudi Arabia, the most noteworthy of the feudal-yet-computerized societies of that region, there have been other women who have taken such daring steps as driving a car or uncovering their heads. But they do so at considerable personal risk and, usually, at similarly considerable cost.
Yes, the current Saudi regime (particularly the newly installed crown prince) has shown some slight tendency toward modernization, even making it part of their “Vision 2030” program. But such movement always comes with the constraint that the country’s religious establishment and its largely conservative patriarchy want things to mostly remain as they are – or as they were a century or more ago.
Yes, the Saudi regime is not the international menace represented by Iran (with its own medieval tendencies). We have many strategic interests in common with the Saudis, and I don’t object to our military alignment with them. But that does not mean we should view the Saudis as friends, or even as allies. It is not an accident that the religious schools that have spawned Islamic extremism around the globe were nourished by Saudi money.
The outcry over the sight of a woman wearing a short skirt and a top that leaves her arms and a bit of midriff uncovered shows how far that society remains from being anything most of the rest of the world would recognize as normal. It isn’t normal to prevent half the population from traveling or working without permission from a member of the other half, let alone to prevent them from driving a car at all, or from showing their hair in public.
What happens when the shrinking value of the country’s oil and the growing demands of its ever-widening royal family and its hangers-on leave too little to buy relative peace in Saudi society? How can Saudi Arabia keep pace and maintain even a reasonable standard of living with half the adult population relegated to such peripheral status?
We ought not to mistake calm for stability. For the moment the Saudi establishment is able to maintain relative calm in the country, but it is anything but stable. At some future date whose timing is unknowable, the 21st century is likely to intrude on the 18th as it persists in Saudi Arabia. We can hope for a relatively peaceful and quick modernization; when the time comes, we certainly should do whatever we can to facilitate it.
But right now, the otherwise ordinary act of a young woman going outdoors in typical 21st century summer dress, and thereby asserting ownership of her own body, is an act of remarkable courage. Whether we ever learn her full name or not, she may in fact be the Saudi equivalent of Rosa Parks – and like that American civil rights icon, she may yet pay a price for her courage.