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Social Networks

Saudi Arabia: Resisting Silence in the Kingdom

The repressive policies of the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have created unique patterns of social exchange. While women are kept out of the public sphere and are even banned from driving: social media - despite censorship - has started to flourish.

Censorship has always been an issue in Saudi Arabia, with newspapers hardly ever being able to publish critical opinion. Nothing can be said on politics. Newspapers either report on international news or local gossip. The newspapers have almost been turned into sensationalist tabloids; while social media has become a fighting ground for opposing opinions.

#Women2Drive

Patriarchy and a lack of progressive legislation have made half the Saudi population become almost invisible. “It is hard to believe that in the 21st century, Saudi Arabia is still barring women from driving,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East and North Africa women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s past time to address the country’s systemic discrimination; driving could open roads to reform.”

In 2013, Saudi women’s rights activists called on Saudi women with international drivers’ licenses to get behind the wheel on October 26, 2013, as part of the “Women2Drive” campaign to end the prohibition on driving. Women have defied the ban and published online videos of themselves, including footage showing Saudi men driving by and giving the thumbs-up sign in support.

An informal prohibition on female driving in Saudi Arabia became official state policy in 1990. During the Gulf War, Saudi women witnessed female American soldiers driving on military bases in their country, and organized a protest. Saudi women drove through the streets of Riyadh in a convoy to protest against the restriction, and the officials arrested them. They lost their jobs and sadly evoked a religious ruling, or fatwa, by the Grand Mufti, the country’s most senior religious authority.

For the Grand Mufti and the ruling classes, driving was portrayed as something that would open women to temptation and destroy the social fabric. Based on this fatwa, the then Minister of Interior, Prince Nayef, banned women’s driving by decree.

The “Women2Drive” campaign used social media to raise awareness and encourage female drivers to take to the roads. Last October, police stopped and detained two women in a car, including a prominent blogger Eman al-Nafjan, who was filming the other woman driving. They were released the same day, after they signed a pledge not to do it again. Their male guardians; a father, husband, or even a son, had to also sign a pledge that the women would not drive.

Systematic state discrimination is pervasive within the Saudi male guardianship system. These laws treat women as legal minors, who cannot conduct official government business, travel abroad, marry, pursue higher education, or undergo certain medical procedures without permission from men.

The right to protest is already banned by the government and non-governmental human rights organizations are not allowed to operate freely.

How the internet got censored

The internet is heavily censored in Saudi Arabia.  In 2001, the council of ministers created legislation for content filtering. Since October 2006, the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) has been handling the DNS structure and a number of sites are blocked according to two lists maintained by the Internet Services Unit. One list is of “immoral” material, mostly pornographic sites, LGBT forums and sites promoting the Shia ideology. The other list is based on instructions by the Ministry of Interior. Citizens are also encouraged to report immoral sites using a web form available on the government’s website.

In 2011, the Saudi government additionally introduced new internet rules and regulations that required all online newspapers and bloggers to obtain a special license from the Ministry of Culture and Information. Many articles from the English and Arabic Wikipedia projects are inexplicably censored. This year there are plans to regulate local companies producing content for YouTube.

Media of last resort

Due to restrictions on expression, people seek the hottest news from sources beyond the reach of government censors. A blogger from The Economist describes it as: “Relative wealth and a surplus of free time that comes with youth unemployment topping 40%, have turned Saudis into some of the most intensive users of social media on the planet.”

To give an example, a recent case of child abuse was brought to public attention though YouTube. An outraged citizen uploaded footage from a security camera that showed a man fondling a young girl in the lobby of an apartment building. Thanks to this citizen activism, the perpetrator was arrested.

When an activist, liberal or alleged apostate is arrested, it is social media that makes the people aware rather than a news report. Most, if not all, debates between conservatives and liberals are on Twitter or Facebook.

The “Women2Drive” campaign became the catalyst for a lot of public debate on women’s rights. The head of the religious police stated that in Sharia (Islamic law) there is no clear indication that women driving should be banned. But misinformation and pedantic behaviour is ripe; a cleric’s claim that “driving affects women’s ovaries” was mocked by Saudis as well as international users on Twitter.

In an another example, after an activist for women’s rights with over 100,000 followers, questioned if keeping a beard was Islamically necessary, she was reprimanded on Twitter by a prominent cleric. The same conservative forces that want to censor dissent also use social media to monitor and respond to alternative opinions.

Saudi society is mired in contradictions and history suggests that religious authorities will always resist movement towards a more progressive and enlightened society. Backed by the heavy weight of their wealth, the elite classes have a tight grip on ideology and economy as well as social discourse. The only thing that has poked holes in this patriarchal armour has been technology and sharing through social media.

 

Saadia Gardezi is a Political Scientist based in Pakistan

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Saadia Gardezi

Saadia Gardezi is a political scientist from Pakistan

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