Washington State University
Human Rights and specifically, women’s rights are active areas of social, political, and academic struggle in the world. Within the field of sociology, it is known that deviancy is a characteristic ascribed prevailing social behavior external to the actor and the act,1 and it is of social norms and laws codifying deviant labels where tensions are presented in the granting, or the staying of rights to groups of individuals, perceived. What if what is labeled as deviancy, is a complex matter of decades of artificially held back establishment of maturation? What if one’s children were not allowed to grow up, and their children’s children the same, for generations? What would society look like if vast segments were under a watchful eye, and vast segments were not, those under the eye, unable to achieve maturation on their own? A frightening thought: enter Saudi Arabia.
This paper builds on the work of Kruglanski et al. and extends Significance Quest Theory (SQT),2 as it demonstrates modifiability with respect to social situations where there is historically unestablished significance. SQT offers a compelling basic social process (BSP),3 fit for examining the emergence of leaders and social movements where said leaders are intentional or unintentional in being raised to positions perceived as deviant to preserving prevailing social norms where said leaders serve as a polarizing call for change. An examination of the history of women in Saudi Arabia from creation to present, through the lens of the 3N’s of SQT shall demonstrate that a unification of needs, narratives, and networks,4 deeply reflect a common theme amongst a people, a search for significance in contexts diminishing of it.
Saudi Arabia is a fertile ground for studying the advancement of human rights for women, namely because of globalization’s hand in hand “international scrutiny”,5 namely through social media, international media/presses, multi-national corporations, governing bodies, non-governmental institutions (NGO), and academic institutions. The combination of rich availability of coverage by a plurality of institutions external to Saudi Arabia, along with the unequal rights between genders internal to Saudia Arabia, allows for examining power struggles over gender differences. Regarding power struggles, radicalization and terrorism is well known in the region,6 and a strong joint U.S. and Saudi effort on counterterrorism is an important world stabilizing effort for global economies dependent on oil. While popular media focuses on the most dramatic, internal to Saudia Arabia, radicalized tribes within the kingdom had grown discontented with respect to a perception of governing bodies forfeiting Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s dominant ideology,7 this discontent and conservatism to Wahhabism also serves as a part of the context within which women’s rights efforts operate.
It is important to note that the history of Saudi Arabia post-1913 is known to be biased due to state interventions of an active monarchy, for example, leading university educated Shi‘i Saudi historians do not work in any state sanctioned department of history, further more are unable to publish, histories are known to have been rewritten, and foreign histories may be outright banned.8 For this reason, known information based on credible sources with respect to a narrow scope of women in Saudi Arabia will be considered along with comparative literature that more closely reflects Saudi history, until further extensive accounts can become more widely known and established in academic environments and public discourse.
Needs: Unestablished Significance
A Terse History of Saudi Arabia
What could be said of a history with respect to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, when women have been as much a part of the peninsula’s history as men? Where to start? Demographic data is typically tremendously assistive in finding inflection points wherein historical account can be reined in, yet unfortunately the Ottoman government up to World War II had not executed any semblance of a census, and what little is available is based on estimates,9 and quite possibly tampered with in historical accounts due to political narratives maintained. A line must be drawn somewhere. Saudi Arabia is an ultraconservative religious monarchy of Wahhabi faith, and this fact may be the starting point to consider the historical religious identities of the people that live there today in order to know where to start a historical trace. As of 2018, Pew Research Center reports that 75-90% of the population as Sunni Islam, and 10-25% as Shi‘a Islam.10 It is here that an assessment of women’s rights relevant to a people can be examined more narrowly.
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia was well on the way to establishment when the house of Saud, tracing its roots back to an agreement in 1744 between a Saud tribal sheikh and a Wahhabi imam,11 seeking jihad to impose sharia upon the tribes of Central Arabia to lead them back to the “purity of Mohammed’s doctrine”,12 recaptured Riyadh from the Ottoman Empire in 1902.13 This jihad, resulted in a coming together of tribes after the recapture of Riyadh, and with the support of Wahhabi’s strict interpretation of Islam, the Saud-Wahhabi pairing reclaimed the remainder of the Arabia through many conflicts,14 and set the stage for centuries of behaviors reciprocally determined by contingent reinforcement of Wahhabi Islamic interpretation and Saud tribal leadership leading to Ibn Saud uniting the Arab Peninsula and founding of Saudi Arabia in 1932.15 It should be known that as far back as these times, women could not have been absent from efforts, and it would be useful to shed light on perspectives of Bedouin culture with respect to women’s roles.
Women in Wahhabi-Saud Tribal Life
It would be suspect to omit direct, on the ground, perspectives of women’s rights without considering the roles of a becoming process for a society’s individuals in contributing to the sustainment and progress of a peoples, in and amongst contexts of religious interpretation and leadership institutions in managing said people, where management is a governance, regardless of population density. Marcel Kurpershoek, a senior humanities research fellow with New York University in Abu Dhabi offers compelling insight, having spent time with Saudi tribes in the late 1980’s and having written of his experiences in Arabia of the Bedouin:
Even more helpful is a conversation between Marcel and a tribal member, Qasem:
One can draw direct conclusions here, and perhaps parallels to male dominant ethnocentric expressions that had pervaded the public media in western countries of recent. It is important to note that Saudi Arabia also contains a Shi‘i perspective, and their perspective, under Ottoman rule spoke of more religious freedom and a more diverse political environment.18 One wonders if the historical context of earlier tribal life for Shi‘i women and the perceptions of their men offered similar inter-generational views as the Bedouin tribes Kurpershoek exposes here. If so, then what does it mean with respect to needs, narratives, and networks? Are women’s roles viewed in an adversarial relationship with men’s roles in tribal and religious culture? Does the long history of unestablished significance, rather than diminished significance, for women qualify as loss of significance in SQT? SQT seems applicable in its modifiability in this case, and could extend to others, most likely, like African Americans, and the born-into-poverty as well.
Considering the harsh Saudi climate, and sparsity of development over centuries of living, placing one in the context of this world, without technologies, without newspapers, surviving, traveling, where water was a precious commodity, with the governing aspect of Islam given orally and through written text, what needs did men and women have? Is it possible that an entirety of desert life and vast sky diminish the significance of women and men? Were men able to establish their significance at the expense of squandering the ability of women to establish their own? Even during and after the arrival of Ottomans, British with a laissez faire protectorate unbeknownst to the majority of Arabia’s residents,19 and foreign states fixated on Saudi Arabia’s proximity to trade lines, did foreign states themselves present a potential continuance of unestablished significance of Arabia’s peoples. Is the significance loss that leads to “painful confusion”,20 in this case an unestablished significance leading to a “painful ignorance”? Perhaps an ignorance revealed when encountering those who have more successfully established, and grew their own sense of significance through knowledge and power in worldly, agricultural, scientific, technological, and a great variety of accomplishments and credentials in affairs?21 Perhaps it is as this very author writing this paper uncredentialed, to an academic field full of the credentialed establishment examining this very paper, or perhaps it is related to a sense of imposter syndrome and associated sensitivities, the empathy and relatability is profound.
One could rapidly come to realize that highly segregated environments within tribes may have provided one thing for women that is essential in SQT, and that is an aspect of privacy women may have benefitted from: familial networks.22 In SQT, familial networks are considered the most important,23 though in Bedouin life these networks must have been limited in social range though watchful eyes of “adult” male “supervision” (guardianship),24 where super vision, indeed continues today, supported by modern tech such as the Saudi government sponsored app “Absher” which reinforces male guardianship.25
A Long Lesson of Iran
Iran factors heavily into the history of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and it is worth mentioning. After WWI in Iran, Reza Shah, post-1936, rapidly adopted women’s reforms: unveiling women, allowing their participation in governance and politic, improving educational access, and establishing complementary legal supports (i.e., the Family Protection Act).26 However, discontentment with rapid change led to a counter-movement of religious conservatism, led by Ayatolla Ruhollah Komeini, whom led the charge to counter reforms establishing significance in support of women,27 thus succeeding in deposing the Shah during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, rolling back new found freedoms for women,28 and nullifying the Family Protection Act. The radicalization of Komeini and conservatives likely came about from a loss of their own significance and they tried to restore it, and did so with a revolution, yet what of women? These newfound freedoms are not easily rolled back in the memories of women of this era, nor are the memories of women residing in the southern kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is not surprising that Khomeini publicly “supported” women in political life;29 most likely compromise, and further not surprising that outward lives of anyone political, especially women participating in it, would be most “supervised”.
An interesting perspective, however, is that of women aware of the context of Iran. These women offer insight into future context and movements of women’s rights in the Saudi-Wahhabi kingdom. Mary Dejevsky, an independent columnist in the field of foreign affairs who had visited Iran in the 1970’s, at the Independent writes, “that attempts to impose or accelerate modernization may be doomed to fail unless there is sufficient support or understanding for what is needed and the benefits spread beyond a privileged caste.”30 One wonders if the strong familial networks of women, for the privileged, had been less able to be “observed” (guarded) by traditional self-ascribed roles of men in Iran during the reign of the Shah. Could women have been communicating more freely within which a narrative could be built and shared within a context of relatively more freedom? Would the loss of freedoms be remembered? Is Dejevsky’s observation reflective of an unconscious sensitivity to SQT’s encapsulation of a quest for significance as the fundamental desire to matter, to be someone, to have respect,31 that was lost in the rapid social change of the Shah, even for women unprivileged with the benefits of higher social castes?
The Siege of the Grand Mosque
Returning to Saudi Arabia in the same 1979 as the Iranian Revolution, a small group of students formed the the al-Jama’a al-Salafiyya al-Muhtasiba (JSM), dissatisfied with their own perceptions of the Muslim world’s progress and political-religious interpretations of scripture, including Wahhabism,32 laid siege to the Grand Mosque with 300 rebels.33 It was successful, though short lived. The Saudi government placed greater restrictions to prevent further events, inclusive of JSM’s attempt to capture the kingdom’s king.34 Khing Khalid’s attempted capture aborted, left the Saudi state to manage and restrict leftist leaning organizations more tightly. Newspapers reportedly were suddenly more sensitive to photography inclusive of women, the Saudi Interior Ministry voiced concern about working women inside Saudi Arabia, regardless of nationality, and women’s scholarships within the state evaporated.35 A butterfly flapped in Iran, and the chaos that ensued brought hurricanes to Saudi Arabia, yet Saudi Arabia seemed to understand and sense the need for significance of its own religious peoples and swallowed the hurricane’s eyes, and shut down progress on women’s rights for a period.
The Saudi “Driving” 48
Fast forward to 1990, much has changed, the kingdom is progressing with profits of western oil through industrialization’s benefits of western technology, where the automobile, replaced the camel, much to the mention in numerous poems about the strength and character of such vehicles.36 Vehicles are a pressure point that brings about psychological and structural cultural change due to car dependence.37 On November 6, 1990, forty-eight women protested against laws dictating that they could not drive by driving around the city of Riyadh, where following, they were promptly arrested, privately fired, publicly denounced, and religiously labeled immoral.38 Aisha al-Mana, one of the drivers speaks on an anniversary of the event, of raising awareness, “we raised the issue of the women in Saudi Arabia and the consciousness about it.”39 In SQT, these women, now labeled derogatorily as “drivers”,40 seemed to have found their voice in radicalization, and while thankfully not violent, perhaps the label of drivers satisfied some aspect of a search for significance in that, now they are seen, and perhaps Saudi institutions had been aware of this movement, as they had, and still have close relationships with another nation well versed in managing popular movements with public relations, the United States.
It is important to note, that Saudi policy seemed to evolve, having calibrated how it responded to protest, radicalization, and extremism; the state responds with more proportional force to present and future threats, make adjustments, and moves on, careful not to display any matter of paralysis. It is as if the Saudi state itself had found a way to search for ultra-conservative religious significance in a globalized perceived “gender-neutral” world. As the world integrated more, Saudi maintained its religious enforcement of gender inequality. In 1994, Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Ullma withdrew from a United Nations conference in protest of its call for gender equality, stating “equality is against God’s law (shari‘a)”41 In 1996, Shaikh bin Baz stated:
Removing a woman from her home, which is her kingdom, means removing her from what her natural state and her character require. Women entering the realms of men is a danger for Islamic society in that it leads to mixing of the sexes, which is considered the main path to adultery, which splits society and wrecks morals.42
A narrative had been written and spoken without women’s efforts, the men of Saudi Arabia did the narration true to guardian form, and these men spoke it loudly to the world, where it echoed in offices, places of worship, and homes of its peoples. Surely there are Saudi women who supported these causes, and surely there are women who reluctantly have, and surely there are women who resisted them.
One thing is certain, not only was a narrative written by men, but these same men also spread these messages on the global network, where women, women’s groups, world governments, and the United Nations could see them. The growth of multi-national media empires amplify narrative,43 where at this moment in Saudi Arabian history, women more frequently start showing up and protesting more visibly in the world. That said, there’s some unknown deft skill of Wahhabi-Saud tribal management over the entire history of Arabia, and it most likely includes “management” of women, dating back to the prophet Muhammed, and perhaps even prior. This skill to appease or defer significance is a terrifying prospect, to women’s rights, yet the author cannot shake the sense that there is another side of the story untold, perhaps state secrets, perhaps executive privilege, and this analysis shall continue through more accounts public and academic.
What of a story of the women who would prefer not to be beholden to a western state sanctioned economism that embraces of a dual-income inter-household competition of 40/50/60-hour workweeks resulting in parents further drifting from their families, failing to mention additional time-costing commuting to and from places of employment to compete against peers, benefiting aging cohorts of property owners restricting employment in urban centers, yet punishing young cohorts without property with geometrically rising property values as a result? Is their voice in Saudi Arabia present amongst a culture surviving Ottoman and British attempts at imperialist expansion? Would their voices be obfuscated through the voices of their husbands? Women’s rights in an ultraconservative male dominant ethnocentric state seems as difficult to navigate as the notion of peace between Israel and Palestine. There seemed to be a clear absence of a clear, crisp, one page, whitepaper that solves the needs of women’s rights and ultra-conservative Wahhabism for the Saudi kingdom; the west should be familiar with this, considering six-hundred-plus-page omnibus bills that occasionally chokes the entirety of political processes for decades (i.e., Affordable Care Act in the United States).
Somehow Saudi Arabia seemed to know when to release pressure, and when to throw down a hammer, while on a slow march of progress, because one need only realize that it remains a very wealthy patriarchal monarchy still alive in modern times, though the wealth seems consolidated, and could quite possibly lead to instability.44 This can only last so long, as another vehicle of network effect rapidly ascended over the next decade, and it is summarized elegantly serendipitous with respect to SQT, the internet.
Al-Huwaider, a protestor for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia used driving as an example. In 2008, she decided to videotape her drive, and post it on YouTube, and reflected women’s rights drivers earlier, where following, she was arrested and received reprimand for not having a male guardian.45 Al-Huwaider demonstrates clear awareness of political history in her interview with Hadani Ditmars of New Internationalist:
It is clear the earlier narratives of more liberal freedoms for women are remembered in al-Huwaider’s statements, and that regarding need, this clearly demonstrates a loss of significance, through clearly articulated narrative, and demonstrates clear network effects through familial relations. The earlier concerns that women might be silently supportive may not be extensively valid in this light. According to Kruglanski et al., loss of significance includes “anticipated (or threatened) significance loss, corresponding to the psychological construct of avoidance.”47 Is it possible that an alternative unestablished significance may anticipate continual resistance to the establishment of it, if so, SQT can be modified further with little change to an overall theory. The anticipated continuance seems clearly stated by al-Huwaider’s case. Avoidance, according to Ryan Baily and Jose Pico of St. Lucie Medical Center and Jose Pico define the defense mechanism of avoidance under primitive defense mechanisms, as:
When reviewing the commentary, one cannot help to see avoidance defense mechanisms through parapraxis in testimonial word choice, yet it may not be easy to professionally diagnose a further avoidant personality disorder, though characteristics of this disorder’s fears seem awfully reminiscent of the reality these women face.49 There are clear signs of western defined domestic abuse in the narrative of Huwaider’s case and she found an outlet, a voice. She had in all essence of the concept of SQT, become radicalized, and quite possibly from the narratives supported by facts of her family members, and her own experiences, she was moved to act to find closure. Huwaider openly discusses her effort to inspire women to act, and women that have acted are arrested, and these stories build additional momentum traversing networks and continue growing narratives.50 Indeed, Huwaider’s efforts continued a significance quest, as shall be seen.
Just sixteen days after 9/11, a Woman2drive member known as Shema was arrested for driving and whipped ten times, in Jeddah; up to this point, other women had been occasionally driving in protest.51 This movement was the co-work of Huwaider, earlier arrested, and her narrative as well as the narratives of other women was, in hindsight of the framework of SQT, radicalizing others. Earlier in June of the same year, more women had driven and posted videos; Hillary Clinton as U.S. Secretary of State overwhelmingly used her stature and supported cause without directly making it a stance of official U.S. foreign policy.52 The world was watching, BBC, CNN, and other large networks covered the movement. Saudi Arabia had done what it always done, arrest, punish, and in some cases tighten security, perhaps to avoid a repeat of Iran’s experience of an outright religious revolution.
In 2004, the U.S. Congressional Research Service provided a report on reforming U.S. policy with respect to Saudi Arabia, as 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens.53 This report specifically called out in the overview, Saudi Arabia’s “segregation of the sexes… ban on women driving.”54 The report mentions the inability for women to vote in 2005 local elections, the imprisonment for “incitement”, lack of access to attorneys, and trials where judges were absent.55 Noteworthy, is that syntax and word choice of government agencies reveals very carefully constructed policy conveying poignancy, for the word incitement is in quotes, and more directly communicates what the U.S. meant to communicate. Unpacking “air quotes” results in a more common and easily understood translation: so-called incitement. The U.S. government knew exactly what it was messaging in this report amongst the world’s diplomatic community, well played United States, well played; never underestimate diplomacy. Saudi Arabia did officially promise reforms, these were slow to come, as with prior women’s rights efforts, yet again, Saudi Arabia’s governing bodies seem as clever as U.S. legislative bodies at talking about perspectives of change yet deferring change usually in the name of “economic stability” (air quotes, exactly). The 1979 Iranian Revolution’s lessons on popular toppling of monarchies, seems well remembered, even while the U.S. wanted to address rights abuses in the kingdom.
As history up to this date demonstrates, the case for women’s rights seemed to take a back seat to nation building in Saudi Arabia, congruent with efforts to combat terrorism, yet the rise of the internet seemed to suddenly support the networking aspects of woman’s rights radicalization. Women were taking advantage of it, it was visible, and people around the globe were moved by images and what was seen. In 2015, in another U.S. Congressional Research Service Report,56 the service suggested that the U.S. finally ratify the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).57 U.S. legal institutions, though citing shortcomings of the convention, suggested ratification, support, and implementation.58 Was the sudden resurgence of interest due to Saudi women drivers? Most likely they contributed, and it is helpful to have a U.S. Secretary of State supporting them. It is also interesting to note that the U.S. still has not ratified the convention as of the drafting of this very paper, while yet more U.S. legal perspectives suggest action.59 Given the history of policy-post-protest in U.S. history, it is not surprising, in the face of a nation nearly embracing economics as a religion of economism, is summed up in James Carville’s crude, alarming, yet possible grotesque motto of a state sanctioned and perhaps globalized new religion, “it’s the economy, stupid.”
The United Nations in 2009 concluded in a report on Saudi Arabia that it hoped to see gains in female employment, “however this progress has not been accompanied by a comparable increase in women’s participation in the labour force and they are largely excluded from decision-making processes.”60 The narrative seems to write itself and continues to do so; if women are not actively engaged in narrative, does SQT apply? With slight modification from diminishment significance, to unestablished significance, of course it does. Considering foreign impressions of Saudi Arabia, Robin Wright writes, “the status of women was the best example to Westerners of how badly out-of-date the Saudi system was. As the rest of the world experienced women’s liberation and the sexual revolution, Saudi women were still behind black veils….”61 The use of the expression “out of date” speaks volumes, it is the same kind of description one uses of a cast-off computer, a sluggish two or three year old cell phone, or an older copy of an operating system no longer receiving security updates; side comments with dismissive weight. These are hardly olive branches to ultraconservatives, as “out of date” is a line often heard from colonialists justifying settlements in the lands of the “out of date” natives.
Women as Minors and Advancement of Education
By this time, movement is accelerating, Saudi women’s rights are being discussed in the world. Human Rights Watch even equated the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia as “legal minors”,62 an expert framing of the truth on the ground, and more skillful at honing the narrative of a regressed significance of woman, which is a significance held short in moving from it being unestablished, to established, a hallmark of status passage from minors to adults.63 In the eye of a public, women were children, perhaps unallowed to grow up, under watchful eyes of male adults. A more correct assessment, an improvement to the narrative, valid in its assessment of the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia as compared to the respect that women across the world worked so hard to have recognized (avoiding framing this recognition as “earned”, it was already earned, their respect was, is, withheld), how are these women not being treated like children?
It appears some message had been heard by the Saudi state in 2009, of whom princes and kings of Saudi Arabia have been oft omitted from this text, for a reason, they are for all intents and purposes just as the Shah of Iran, representative of state function, and serve a role. Is it pressure from the media, the U.N., the U.S., and public opinion that pressed change forward, or again, is it these women that protest under threat of arrest, lashings, chastisement, and a public fearful of supporting them? In 2009, message heard, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) announced openings for women’s attendance; calls for women in faculties continue today.64 Perhaps a small crack in the door appeared.
Sheikh Ahmad Qassim Al-Ghamdi
While one could point to initial incremental liberties granted by prominent heads of religious enforcement agencies in the kingdom, such as the Makkah Province’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia), and while it could be seen that not presenting the kingdom’s efforts may mislead and lend bias only toward significance quests of protestors and activists, at some point, one must ask, of a history of humanity, which is the more valuable significance quest? Herein lies a problem with the search for significance when there are so many quests in economic structures urging competition between people’s pursuits of significance. How is any issue two sided, when each and every individual may present varying perspectives grounded in their very own searches, begging the question, who or what returns the results, and in what order, seeing what first, then second, omitting the subsequent pages to oblivion, biasing the provisioning of said significance by the cleverest and highest bidders (i.e., internet search indexes)?
For example, a prominent cleric, Shaikh Ahmad Bin Qassim Al-Ghamdi appeared less strict on shari‘a with respect to the visage of women’s faces in online media, appearing with his wife unshrouded on a Twitter account in 2014.65 Al-Ghamdi was in fact sued for this by residents of Jeddah,66 the same Jeddah where Shema of Women2drive had been whipped for driving. In fact, earlier, after the call for the filling of openings for women at KAUST, Al-Ghamdi had called gender segregation unsupported by Islamic doctrine, leading to calls for his removal; some commentators saw this as positive in that the state was gaining power over traditionally religious institutions.67 Things were looking better for social reforms, and as to the search for significance, the narrative now was now in the hands of many more individuals networked amongst a greater sea of public opinion, and the stories emerging from Saudi Arabia appeared to reflect working out differences between themselves, so as to perhaps avoid the great resets of history’s numerous revolutions in dramatic setbacks for human rights.
The Kingdom Welcomes Wrestling
Globalization had significantly opened the doors to cultural exchange; women’s rights had become and continues to be an aspect of tension in this exchange. In 2018, The World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. (WWE) and Turki al-Sheikh of Saudi Arabia’s General Sport Authority (GSA) signed a ten-year contract to bring wrestling to the kingdom.68 Wrestling is an attraction to the nation’s large younger audience (40% of the population is under 24 years old as of 2021),69 and WWE strove to abide by cultural sensitivities, segregating audiences and families, and omitting female wrestlers from attractions.70 While some could argue over omissions of female competitors during the first sessions, Paul Levesque, then WWE’s executive vice president of talent, live events, and creative said, “you can’t dictate to places their customs, but you can help to make change… To be honest, I hope that our women are here in a prominent position [like] they are in every other place in the world.”71 The open dialogue about differences of views had been refreshing, and even Saudi Arabia’s Dr. Heidi al-Askari, a director at GSA was reported as saying of sports, “an amazing, powerful tool to work on social change issues.”72
The WWE events are interesting, because Saudi women spectators and their children shed traditional culturally “appropriate” attire, bearing ball caps, t-shirts, and otherwise looking like westerners. Are these movements in change results of earlier significance quests of women meeting up with governance’s search for progress in carefully navigating an ultra-conservative environment without resulting in an outright overthrow of the monarchy? Are these efforts praiseworthy or seen as holding things back? It is amusing that during the inaugural WWE performance, a “malfunction” showed women competitors briefly across stadium jumbotrons, to a male cheering audience, much to the chastisement of GSA.73 Was this a kind of trial balloon or an inadvertent version of a Hawarden Kite,74 known to political strategists.
It must be mentioned that in 2019, women did in fact make a live appearance during a WWE event called the Crown Jewel in Saudi Arabia,75 while earlier vacillation on state approval was evident.76 The publicity of WWE’s willing executives speaking on behalf of women’s rights seemed less sensitive to abandoning cultural sensitivity and risking contracts with Saudi Arabia; WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon shared, “hopefully, this event, this match, this opportunity will have a ripple effect all around the world to show everyone that women belong in the same place that men do.”77
Al-Hathloul’s Voice Travels the World
During these events, al-Hathloul, another driving protestor driven by a significance quest, was also active in networking, narrative, and a continuing a search for closure on women’s rights. In 2018, al-Hathloul met with the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) where her contribution would be added to future reports provided on Saudi Arabia.78 Al-Hathloul was arrested (along with others) following the meeting, where her arrest had been specifically related to meeting with the U.N., and followed by significant trial delays, with statements by CEDAW calling for her release, charged with the weight of the U.N. and its supporting member states.79 Her work kept women’s rights at the forefront of a public audience, al-Hathloul exemplifies the significance question, even at the cost of her own life, who just before CEDAW’s second statement in November of 2020 had undertaken a hunger strike, protesting prison conditions. Her own family had said she was victim of “electric shocks, whippings, and sexual harassment.”80 Al-Hathloul was eventually released from prison in February of 2021, on probation, pending appeals.81
While in prison, al-Hathloul received mentions from French President Emmanuel Macron, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price, the American Bar Association,82 and received the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize, adoption by the city of Brussels, International Civil Right Museum’s 2021 Trailblaizer award, a finalist for the Martin Ennals 2021 Award, Nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, Normandy and International Institute of Human Rights and Peace’s Prix Prize, Sergei Magnitsky’s Human Rights Award, and numerous other recognitions.83 It would seem as if al-Hathloul’s fervor for finding closure is something the world supports, and perhaps her close network with the U.N. and world leaders may very well be the domino bringing effective change while Saudi Arabia charts a course to progress all while preserving stability in the face of potential terrorist reactionaries.
Two events occurred while al-Hathloul was imprisoned. The first is that Saudi Arabia made true on a deliberation on the granting of driver’s licenses to women in 2017;84 another “driver” that had been arrested prior, Manal al-Sharif tweeted “Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop.”85 The kingdom seemed to move quickly while al-Hathloul was jailed, acting on granting driver’s licenses for women in 2018,86 and having granted many by the middle of 2019.87 Amongst the articles and world media, al-Hathloul’s imprisonment during these changes was not without notice, for al-Hathloul wasn’t the only women who had been imprisoned along with al-Hathoul, and their names are worthy of remembering in this paper: Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sada, Nouf Abdulaziz, and Maya’a al-Zahrani.88
The second is that in November of 2020, that Saudi Arabia’s Public Prosecution announced harsher fines and punishment for the abuse of women.89 Dr. Awwad al-Awwad, the president of the Saudi Human Rights Commission released a statement relating that it “is essential to create an environment in which women can exercise their rights guaranteed by the Shariah and the law as well as to realize the aspiration of the wise leadership in accordance with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.”90 At this point in history, it is clear that Saudi Arabia, the governing body, whether monarchy, democracy, or autocracy, seems to have learned what businesses and well established governments around the world have realized, that everyone has a boss, including Saudi Arabia, and as Gustav Le Bon aptly writes:
Perhaps Saudi governance has taken a page from neighboring nations about the globe, earlier aforementioned, in working a field of public opinion and courts of law, carefully, with nuance, and reciprocity, rather than trying to assert a dominant ideology. Instead, their work is to allow the dominant ideology to be bent by progress, where small civil disobedience is somewhat allowed to release the steam of those seeking significance and is somewhat punished to show solidarity with those who have established significance, all for the sake of supporting unified progress of society. Equality is a difficult journey, indeed, and one may find faults, yet Saudi Arabia and its people had not suffered the dramatic fates of their neighbors to the north, in Iran, having too quickly adopted equality without bringing its expanded populous along for the ride.
Amongst significant forces attempting to resolve causal factors of terrorism, individuals and social groups seeking significance may be inadvertently suppressed due to government anti-radicalization efforts at controlling for the 3N’s of Significance Quest Theory (needs, narratives, and networks). Of these, history provides ample evidence that just as the anti-social may traverse a significance quest, so can a pro-social activist traverse the same. Individuals attempting to advance gender equality in Saudi Arabia most likely have been caught in the nets of counterterrorism’s apparatus of technology, policy, and law. It is clear, throughout history, that radicalization is part of larger prevailing arcs of inter-generational psychological and structural processes. In these, as Saudi Arabia seeks to end its dependency on oil,92 it is caught in between 1) adopting global industries where foreign women have already made great strides in establishing significance, and 2) timing the sunsetting cultural-religious laws against women’s rights to soothe conservative significance, thus avoiding extremist terrorism, and adverting potential revolt.
A combination of rich cultural and religious influence of social hierarchies of Wahhabism within Saudi Arabia has demonstrated control over women’s rights within the country, armed by a state delicately trying to avoid imperial overthrow. While attempts have been made by women, such as the Drivers of the Saudi 48 in 1991; Al-Huwalder’s appeal in 2010; the Jeddah Whipping in 2011; and Loujain al-Hathloul’s protests for the right to drive post-2014, subsequent imprisonment in 2018, and “release” in 2021,93 women’s rights progress which started very slowly in Saudi Arabia, had accelerated. Amongst the acceleration, there are catalyzing moments of world visible protest where an unestablished significance of women’s needs are better narrated, and met with vast communications networks of individuals sympathetic to their cause, up to the very peaks of global governing bodies. One wonders if al-Hathloul’s protests would have been as significantly impactful in the absence of these networks, or rather, if al-Hathloul would have even protested without foresight of these networks’ power to amplify and recruit with narratives. It is clear through evidence of her own website’s content, and its clear messaging, that al-Hathloul’s significance quest is well thought out, organized, and executed, to bring rights to women at home, and establishing the significance of Saudi women, abroad. Al-Hathloul meets all criteria of a radicalizing leader as a result of SQT’s BSP, radical in the sense of a pro-social progressing equality in the world.
The road to human rights, and amongst these specifically, women’s rights, seems long, and is a recurring theme of unenfranchised groups of society, yet within the context of Saudi Arabia, the glimmer of hope for equality grows, and through the understanding of Significance Quest Theory, perhaps the Saudi Kingdom knows it has no option left, but to join the globalized world in establishing the significance of gender equality. As had been seen in the United States, needs meeting narratives, true or false, amongst a demand for faster and faster news cycles right down to the briefest of tweets, amplifies and disrupts the very social fabrics within which people live. It is within this environment that catalyzing moments of radicalized behavior, may be labeled as celebrative or terror-ative. Ultimately it will be Saudi people themselves, that decide, with support of their neighbors. It is hopeful to the author that Saudi Arabia, its government, and its peoples, can move through this progress, together, rather than separate.
Caution is urged. While the women’s rights movement is in the author’s view, the right direction, and more easily seen from the perspective of western nations, one could alternatively take the view of the religious practitioners who, themselves, are also searching for significance amongst a globalized world, and some of them are women too. As stated earlier, it is hoped for the people of Saudi Arabia, and its significant neighbors, that religious leaders, and women’s rights leaders can perhaps find common ground in realizing a shared quest, and ultimately support each other, In sha Allah. A mutual support, all while resisting foreign nations’ attempt to yet again, assert clandestine powers, in their own lands, which would only set back not only a women’s but also a native people’s, search for significance amongst punishing landscapes of a true alien in the world: competitive economism putting them at odds with each other for the benefit of a descending few, rather than an ascending many. The author bears not only empathy, but also love for the great people of Arabia, who have proven that natives can indeed, survive, innovate, care, and hopefully love each other as equals: without colonization.94
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2 Arie W. Kruglanski et al., “Significance Quest Theory as the Driver of Radicalization towards Terrorism,” in Resilience and Resolve: Communities Against Terrorism, ed. Jolene Jerard and Salim Mohamed Nasir (London: Imperial College Press, 2015), 17-30.
3 Barny G. Glaser and Judith Holton, “Basic Social Processes,” Grounded Theory Review 4, no. 3 (2005):1-27; note that while Glaser does not consider deviancy as part of a BSP for good reasons, Glaser does consider the effects of labels of deviancy as part of social processes.
4 Arie W. Kruglanski et al., The Three Pillars of Radicalization: Needs, Narratives, and Networks (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 42-56.
5 Bernard Haykel, Thomas Hegghammer, and Stéphane Lacroix, eds., Saudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change. (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 304.
6 Angela Gendron, “Confronting Terrorism in Saudi Arabia,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 23, no. 3 (2010): 487–508, 492.
7 Gendron, “Confronting Terrorism in Saudi Arabia,” 489.
8 Toby Matthiesen, “Shi?i Historians in a Wahhabi State: Identity Entrepreneurs and the Politics of Local Historiography in Saudi Arabia,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 47, no. 1 (2015): 25–45, 26-27.
9 William Ochsenwald, “Ottoman Arabia and the Holy Hijaz, 1516-1918,” Journal of Global Initiatives, Policy, Pedagogy, Perspective 10, no. 1 (2016): 23-34, 30.
10 Dalia Fahmy, “5 facts about religion in Saudi Arabia,” Fact Tank, Pew Research Center, last modified April 12, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/12/5-facts-about-religion-in-saudi-arabia/.
11 Wayne H. Bowen, The History of Saudi Arabia, (Westport: Greenwood, 2007), 69.
12 Marcel Kurpershoek, Arabia of the Bedouins, trans. Paul Vincent (London: Saqi Books, 2001), 17.
13 Bowen, The History, 83.
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15 Bowen, The History, 67-83.
16 Kurpershoek, Arabia, 103.
17 Kurpershoek, Arabia, 108
18 Matthiesen, “Shi?i Historians in a Wahhabi State: Identity Entrepreneurs and the Politics of Local Historiography in Saudi Arabia,” 36.
19 James Onley, “Britain and the Gulf Shaikhdoms, 1820-1971: The Politics of Protection,” CIRS Occasional Papers (2010).
20 Kruglanski, The Three Pillars, 47.
21 Research is highly recommended in unestablished significance and painful ignorance, as it most likely relates to inequality.
22 Again, research is highly recommended.
23 Kruglanski, The Three Pillars, 51-53.
24 U.S. Department of Justice, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Issue Update: Guardianship, Women, and Religious Freedom by Scott Weiner, (Washington, DC, 2020), https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1334731/download.
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59 Rangita de Silva de Alwis and Amanda M. Martin, “‘Long Past Time’: CEDAW Ratification in the United States,” University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law & Public Affairs 3, no. 1 (2018):15-50.
60 Yakin Ertük, Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences (New York: United Nations, 2009), 2.
61 Robin Wright, Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam (London: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 155.
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64 Andy Tay, “Saudi Arabian Universities Push to Recruit Women Faculty,” News & Opinion, The Scientist, April 5, 2020, https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/saudi-arabian-universities-push-to-recruit-women-faculty-67383.
65 Tariq A. Al Maeena, “When clerics collide over differing ideologies,” Opinion, Gulf News, December 20, 2014, https://gulfnews.com/opinion/op-eds/when-clerics-collide-over-differing-ideologies-1.1429523.
66 Arab News, “Al-Ghamdi ‘faces’ lawsuit,” Arab News, December 18, 2014, https://www.arabnews.com/saudi-arabia/news/676086.
67 Souhail Karam, “Saudi liberals see hope as clerics argue over women,” Reuters, May 3, 2010, https://www.reuters.com/article/idINIndia-48183220100503.
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69 United States Central Intelligence Agency, “Saudi Arabia,” in CIA World Factbook 2021 (Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2021), https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/saudi-arabia/.
70 Bishara, “Saudi Arabians enjoy escapism and the hope of positive changes at WWE’s ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’.”
71 Bishara, “Saudi Arabians enjoy escapism and the hope of positive changes at WWE’s ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’.”
72 Bishara, “Saudi Arabians enjoy escapism and the hope of positive changes at WWE’s ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’.”
73 Bishara, “Saudi Arabians enjoy escapism and the hope of positive changes at WWE’s ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’.”
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