High Cost of Silence: Khashoggi and Women’s Rights Activists in Saudi Arabia
Khashoggi’s murder should cast a new light on women’s rights activists imprisoned in Saudi Arabia under the tight control of the monarchy and away from the scrutiny and attention of the international community.
For more than two weeks, Saudi officials denied that they had played any role in the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and pointed critic to crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Khashoggi was last seen earlier this month entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. After unrelenting global scrutiny, the Saudi officials admitted that the 59-year-old journalist had been “accidentally” murdered inside the consulate during a fight with his assailants. The assailants, the officials claimed, were part of a rogue operation. Needless to say, the claim was met with widespread skepticism.
Khashoggi’s murder took place inside a consulate, on a foreign soil, outside the tight and close sphere of influence of the monarchy – even if the consulate is conventionally regarded as Saudi sovereign territory.
The blatant assassination raises the question as to what happened and continues to happen to women’s rights activists who were jailed in Saudi Arabia, earlier this year. The murder of Khashoggi should cast a new light on these activists imprisoned under the tight control of the monarchy and away from the scrutiny and attention of the international community.
Earlier this year, less than a month before the Kingdom was due to lift the ban on women’s driving, the authorities arrested feminists who campaigned for women’s rights to drive. The list of detained activists included high profile feminists such as Samar Badawi, a recipient of the U.S. International Women of Courage award, and Loujain al-Hathloul, a vocal Saudi activist who since 2014 has been arrested numerous times for defying the ban on women driving.
Limits of State-Sponsored Feminism
Similar to Khashoggi, the female activists challenged the image of the “reformist” crown prince – an image that he carefully cultivated to impress the Western audience. The monarchy silenced women’s rights activists to stop them from exposing the facade surrounding these “reforms.”
The crown prince has presented himself as a reformer since coming to power in 2015. Besides lifting the ban on women’s driving, he granted women the right to vote and run for elections in 2015 and eased male guardianship laws, under which women are required the permission of a male guardian to work, travel, or marry.
The reform and detention campaigns are intimately linked to Mohammed bin Salman’s model of state-sponsored feminism. Under this model, the crown prince moved to co-opting women’s rights issue to appeal to the Western audience and to consolidate his power amid a shifting economic and political landscape.
By lifting the ban on women’s driving, females are encouraged to join the workforce and the Kingdom ostensibly appears to be modernizing society. The reforms thus contribute to polishing the Kingdom’s international image and appealing to Western investors.
However, the reforms do not necessarily open up space for feminists given the restrictions imposed by Mohammad bin Salman’s sponsored feminism. The crown prince silences activists and excludes them from the discussions to tie advancements in women’s rights to his legacy. His policies weaken the ability of women’s groups to organize and press for further reforms.
Silence of International Community
While there was a global media outcry following the jailing of female activists, the silence of governments in the West and the Middle East was deafening. Canada was one of the few countries to condemn the arrest campaign of women’s rights activists. Saudi officials responded by cutting all economic and diplomatic ties and threatening to withdraw their investments. Other governments remained silent to protect their mutual interests and/or seal their arms deals with the powerful Saudi crown prince.
The silence of different governments over the jailing of women’s rights activists earlier this year contributed to creating a sense of impunity among Saudi officials. It paved the way for the next crude political hit: the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
The clumsiness within which Khashoggi’s murder was carried out underscores the sense of impunity among Saudi officials. The brutal and blunt assassination also marks the high cost of silence in the face of human rights violations. Silence, needless to say, is complicity.