On International Women’s Day (March 8th) the question that BBC Trending found it appropriate to ask visitors to the Middle East page on the corporation’s website was “Are Saudi women really that oppressed?“
In the text accompanying that video report, readers are told that what they know about the state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia (including, apparently, its 2015 ranking by the World Economic Forum at 134 out of 145 countries) is a “stereotype”.
Life for women in the Arab kingdom is often painted as one of repression, after all they are forbidden from driving and are restricted by male guardianship laws which deprive them of their independence.
And BBC Trending has covered several stories that have gone viral that show how these restrictions affect women’s lives.
But many of these stories also show how women are using social media to make their voices heard, challenging not only their own society but also the stereotype the world has of them.
So for the “Saudis on Social” series we asked Saudi women, if they are really that oppressed?”
In the video the BBC’s Mai Norman tells audiences that:
When it comes to Saudi women, well, most of the world has a certain image: unequal and can’t even drive. But many Saudi women say that’s just a stereotype; it’s not the full picture.
How the term “many Saudi women” is quantified or sourced is not revealed to audiences and neither – crucially – are the basic standpoints and beliefs of the report’s contributors. Viewers see an interview with a woman presented as Samer al Morgan who tells them that:
The Saudi woman is completely different. There are many different types of women. I’m one of these women who doesn’t fit the image portrayed by western media.
The speaker is apparently Saudi journalist Samer al Mogren and one has to wonder about BBC Trending’s framing of her words given the fact that in 2008 she recounted her own experiences at a major newspaper.
Mogren worked for four years at the Saudi daily Al-Watan, enjoying a top-notch position where she supervised both men and women at the paper’s social affairs desk. Late last year, the editorial board changed hands, and from that point her skills were called into question. “I was totally marginalized,” she says. “I wasn’t consulted as an editor; I’d go home at six or seven in the evening after writing out the pages only to find that when the paper came out the next day, nothing I’d done was published. “I started to witness real discrimination against women. Women weren’t wanted there, except for a handful who were needed for administrative work. If there was a woman who was capable of making a decision, it wasn’t welcome.” Loath to capitulate to the whims of her new boss, Mogren decided to leave her job while she was ahead. “If I’d stayed there I’d have been buried,” she says.
During her field work as a journalist, Mogren has interviewed countless Saudi women and documented their plight as second-class citizens in Saudi society. Mogren, who has since begun contributing to the Kuwaiti Awan, has revealed some horrific stories of violence against Saudi women and hopes to raise more awareness about this issue around the world, in particular in the Arab world.
Norman goes on: “So we’ve been asking Saudi women themselves: are women in the kingdom really that oppressed?”
Viewers then see Nourah al Shaaban – presented as an “executive director” of an unnamed organization say, “As a Saudi woman I never felt oppressed in any means. We have in our parliament more than 30 women.”
Norman explains, “she’s referring to the recent and long-awaited move to allow women the right to vote and take part in parliamentary elections.”
In fact, as the BBC itself reported, the December 2015 elections were for municipal councils “with few powers” rather than for a parliament as most viewers would understand the term. Many female candidates – apparently including women’s rights campaigners – were barred and those that did run were not allowed to address male voters face to face. Polling stations were segregated and the female candidates won approximately 1% of the contested seats.
Norman continues, “So do they have a point? More women in Saudi Arabia graduate from university than men. Contrary to popular belief women in Saudi Arabia can work and in fact have found prominence in different fields.”
As Freedom House points out, “More than half of the country’s university students are now female, although they do not enjoy equal access to classes and facilities.”
According to the World Bank, women made up a mere 20% of Saudi Arabia’s workforce in 2014 and the percentage of women holding ministerial level positions was zero.
The video does go on to highlight the issues of the extensive requirement for male guardians and domestic violence – described by Freedom House as follows:
Women are not treated as equal members of society, and many laws discriminate against them. They are not permitted to drive cars and must obtain permission from a male guardian in order to travel within or outside of the country. According to interpretations of Sharia in Saudi Arabia, daughters generally receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers, and the testimony of one man is equal to that of two women. Moreover, Saudi women seeking access to the courts must be represented by a male. The religious police enforce a strict policy of gender segregation and often harass women, using physical punishment to ensure compliance with conservative standards of dress in public. Same-sex marriage is not legal. All sexual activity outside of marriage, including same-sex activity, is criminalized, and the death penalty can be applied in certain circumstances. A 2013 law defines and criminal
izes domestic abuse, prescribing fines and up to a year in prison for perpetrators. However, according to analysis by Human Rights Watch, the law lacks clarity on enforcement mechanisms.
The report closes with the following messaging – again including the foggy term “many women.” “Clearly when it comes to rights there are still many battles to fight. However many women in Saudi Arabia say that labelling them as victims only makes those battles harder to fight.”
Obviously there are women in Saudi Arabia fighting the uphill battle for equal rights and some small gains have been made. However, this report fails to clarify to audiences that many of the issues facing Saudi women (and human rights campaigners in general) are rooted in the country’s legal system which is based on interpretations of Sharia law.
This report’s attempt to create linkage between the way in which the situation of Saudi Arabian women is portrayed in the Western media and their ability to make progress in changing laws created under that male-dominated legal system clearly does not hold any water.
Then again, neither does the preposterous question posed repeatedly in this report’s title and subsequent content or its whitewashing of parts of the subject matter through inaccurate and selective representation of the situation of women in a non-democratic theocracy in which they cannot even decide how to dress or open a bank account without male permission.
If anyone – including Saudi women – was expecting the self-styled “standard-setter for international journalism” to make the most of International Women’s Day to inform its audiences of the issues faced by women in one of the worst places on earth for gender equality, they will have been sorely disappointed.