Written and photographed by MaryBeth Bognar, Program Coordinator
The Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) hosted the launch of its newly published report, “A Voice Unsilenced: Saudi Women Advocating Their Rights, 1990-2017” (A Voice Unsilenced), authored by Saudi women’s rights activists Monera Al Nahedh and Hessah Al Sheikh. The report is the first of its kind where Saudi women speak for and about themselves to a global audience. It exposes the oppressive laws that position them as second-class citizens and assesses their advocacy initiatives toward gender equality. CWGL launched “A Voice Unsilenced” during the 62nd United Nations Commission on the Status of Women to amplify Saudi women’s voices and provide an opportunity for engagement. Through this global space and network, the story of Saudi women’s advocacy and struggles could reach beyond Saudi Arabia and to a world that stands to support them.
As panelists, CWGL welcomed the report’s authors, as well as Saudi activists and special guest speaker Yakin Ertürk, former UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and current CWGL Visiting Global Associate.
The Saudi activists spoke on the situation of Saudi women in the context of international laws and overall legal obligations and realities. They emphasized that the roles imposed on Saudi women that result in their lack of freedom are claimed to be for their protection. Saudi Arabia has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), but most changes in its national laws and practices thus far are largely cosmetic. The activists gave examples such as women participating in the Olympics, but not in sports at school; or easing some restrictions for women at the surface, but still requiring them to have a male guardian. They also provided insight to what this reality meant for Saudi women in their daily lives, particularly young women. Light was also shed on young Saudi women’s resistance including their activism and sharing of personal stories through the use of social media.
Al Nahedh and Al Sheikh, as the report’s authors, provided background on “A Voice Unsilenced” before connecting it to recent changes. In a joint statement on their work, they had said, “we endeavor to be part of the process for positive change and effective advocacy for the equality of all, expressed in “Vision 2030” for Saudi Arabia. Our work is in the spirit of keeping the promise and realizing the hope for young women and men of our country.”
Al Sheikh detailed the contents of “A Voice Unsilenced” which, in its assessment of Saudi women’s activism, lifts up the extraordinary circumstances in which this advocacy occurs as well as the resulting backlash. It tells this story through information collected from stakeholders, including women activist leaders, as well as through a detailed look into 20 campaigns and demands since 1990 carried out in public spaces and online. By acknowledging a shift in activism with the rise of social media, a detailed Twitter analysis demonstrates how the platform has been used to both organize and share struggles internationally. By lifting up what has worked well and critiquing areas that require further examination, the report offers a reflection of Saudi women’s voices.
Al Nahedh tied the activism from “A Voice Unsilenced” to current realities in Saudi Arabia, emphasizing that it is a period of change and with change brings opportunities. She shared that Saudi women have the ability to push their agenda during this time, but changes must go beyond the surface. Shifts such as the end of the driving ban won’t make a difference in regards to patriarchy or realizing true gender equality. Saudi women must continue to advocate for their full rights for true and substantial change. In doing so, Al Nahedh concludes that their outreach must be inclusive, representative, and be conducted with a united vision and agenda.
Ertürk provided insight from her 2008 visit to Saudi Arabia as the then Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. Cynicism often exists around Saudi Arabia ratifying CEDAW with the entire convention under reservation. However, Ertürk lifts up that even by ratifying CEDAW at all, as well as being a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Saudi Arabia has committed itself to engagement on human rights issues. “Engagement is key,” said Ertürk. They can no longer fully control the situation as they once could.
The launch was moderated by Krishanti Dharmaraj, Executive Director of CWGL, who provided background on the Center’s partnership with Al Nahedh and Al Sheikh. It is with feminist values that CWGL strengthens and bridges voices for human rights. To this end, one of the Center’s programmatic goals is for feminist standards to become the norm. Towards this, CWGL aims to amplify feminist thought, standards and leadership to influence civil society and its institutions and structures, thereby addressing inequality, discrimination and violence. This includes amplifying women’s voices of the Global South in how they are defining and demanding their rights by connecting them to global spaces.
With recent policy shifts, it is time for the voices of Saudi women, who have been the driving force for substantive change, to be heard. “A Voice Unsilenced” serves as an invaluable avenue to connect Saudi women with a world that stands to support them. “We are confident that this report is the beginning of a reflection of Saudi women’s voices in what promises to be a long, powerful, and courageous journey,” said Dharmaraj.
This project was funded by Channel Foundation, Rutgers Global, and Center for Women's Global Leadership.