1 Introduction

Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian state situated on the twin pillars of religion and the Al-Saud tribe. This division of power between the Al-Saud and Wahhabi religious establishment has been central to contesting gender and woman rights. Based on this division, religious establishment conservatively defines the women’s roles and position in Saudi society according to Islamic sharia laws and Hadiths (Al-Munajjed, 1997, p. 9). Thus, women’s position in Saudi Arabia is contingent upon two factors: position of religion and position of government with religion. Women’s inequality is traditionally structured in the social and governmental institutions, which comes from the state supporting Islam and derived from a literal reading of the Qur’an and Sunna. The Saudi state supports the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, which dominantly undermines women’s position in the social sphere and considers women inferior to and dependent upon men. It states that it is the prerogative of men to protect women’s honor. This understanding comes from literary reading of Islamic text, largely Hanbali School of jurisprudence (Lichter, 2009; Niblock, 2006).

Oil-led development, modernization, and urbanization in Saudi Arabia created isolation for women (Menoret, 2020, p. 58 and 67). State behavior was intertwined with controlling women’s behavior, separating moral and immoral women; hence, ‘this fear shaped state policy’ (Al-Rasheed, 2013, p. 49). Due to Saudi state-imposed nationalism on lines of Wahhabism, women’s position inside the Kingdom was articulated as ‘Religious Nationalism’ by Madawi Al-Rasheed. She writes (Al-Rasheed, 2013, p. 23) that the oil boom created a ‘double exclusion’ for women: from the general economy and the domestic sphere. Structurally, this ‘double exclusion’ deprived women of control over their own lives and issues of gender equality. Thus, women resorted to less controversial means of engaging themselves in certain professions like teaching, publishing, art, poetry, literature, philanthropy, education, and designing. As Madawi Al-Rasheed (2013, p. 2) cites Pierre Bourdieu (2001, p. 92), who says that ‘women were drawn into the ‘the domains of production and circulation of symbolic goods’ like publishing, journalism, the media, teaching, etc., when they were excluded from economic and political activity.’ These professions though not mainstream contributed passively toward state-building. Women’s expression and empowerment were soft enough not to get caught in state-led religious conservatism through these complacent means.

Women’s employment is closely related to women becoming independent and empowered. In Saudi Arabia, women’s empowerment is seen as a structural constraint. Saudi women’s presence in employment and public should be seen in the context of state polity and religion. The empowerment process closely relates to the process of change (Kabeer, 1999, p. 437 as quoted in Mellor 2010), having three dimensions of resources, agency,Footnote 1 and achievements. The women empowerment debate further gets complex when Muddassir Quamar (2016) states that “debate on women empowerment brings fore the question about role and place of women in society, but remains confined to not challenging the status quo.” Women’s activism and empowerment in authoritarian Saudi Arabia closely resonates with the idea of ‘state-led’ feminism, as stated by Joseph Kechichian.

Women’s demand for social and political rights has been evident since the 1990s in writing petitions to the monarchy (Kechichian, 2013). Women and various civil society groups have been protesting for women’s rights, jobs, equal pay, gender-segregation laws, driving bans, etc. Their ideas though common issues to women, but their understanding has been defined differently and addressed by Saudi women themselves. After the September, 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and a series of domestic bombings in 2003, Saudi Arabia was forced to revisit its policy regarding women and religion (Al-Rasheed, 2008). There were a series of reforms and changes that were ushered by the state for women in education and employment. Women were seen as ‘agents of change’ who could modify public opinion, growing anti-Saudi Arabia.

State-led Public Relations initiatives in Transnational media networks were used to present a favorable Saudi image to audiences abroad (Al-Rasheed, 2013). However, the changes in society became irreversible since women now can articulate themselves in those limited spaces. Women activists now could organize themselves as per their ideologies and interests. While Saudi women’s movements are engaged in a material struggle about equal rights and opportunities for women, it also becomes a symbol of the definition of femininity (Kurdi, 2014). Saudi women’s rights are diverse and divided along with class, ethnicity, social positions, religious affiliation, personal identities, geographical regions, and tribal lines (Al-Rasheed, 2013; Yamani, 2004).

May Al-Dabbagh (2015, pp. 235–236) has categorized Saudi female political orientations into four categories as liberal,Footnote 2 right-based,Footnote 3 Islamist,Footnote 4 and conservativeFootnote 5with their common denominator being social change agendas. Along with these political orientations that seep through agenda and demands, there are other categories of Saudi women rights activists who can be identified as political dissents and youth (Al-Rasheed, 2011; Le Renard, 2013); Quran interpreters (Al-Mahasheer, 2018); religious conservatives, non-practitioners, writers (Al-Fassi, 2016; Al-Ghadeer, 2009; Arebi, 1994); artists; filmmakers, singers (Foley, 2019). Saudi women rights activists like Rowdha Yousef (Zoepf, 2010), Manal Al-Sharif (Humaidi, 2018), Maha Akeel (Quamar, 2016), Muna Abu Sulayman (Yale University, 2009) underline the objective of their movements and activism that accords with rights given to women in the Quran, and specifically based on Sharia principals. For feminists to have audiences in Saudi Arabia, their ideas must be compatible and sensitive to religion. Therefore, multiple Muslim feminism exists against a singular form of feminism, in the Kingdom and within women’s scholarship.

2 Changing Position of Women

Oil-led modernization and urbanization in Saudi Arabia have isolated women (Menoret, 2020, p. 58 and 67). Increasing surplus capital accumulation and power consolidation have changed the nature of conversations and discussions inside the country (Menoret, 2014, p. 8). The discussion of human rights has given birth to the practices of urban activism, which are now seen as a newer form of engaged citizenship. Pascal Menoret (2014) uses Jurgen Habermas’s concept of the ‘plebeian public sphere’ to understand the everyday attitudes of Saudi citizens. In his work, Joyriding in Riyadh, he explores how thriving sub-cultures in Saudi Arabia is a way of confronting the state toward managing the public sphere, protecting private property enforcing the law (2014, pp. 10–11). As Sean Foley quoted in his book Changing Saudi Arabia using Antonio Gramsci’s concept of Organic Individuals, he says youth ‘through the language of their culture articulate feelings and experiences that the masses cannot easily express’ (Foley, 2019, p. 5). After the Arab Spring of 2011, urban activism by youth and women groups changed the nature and method of resistance and protest, about how it was traditionally understood. As Bayly Philip Christopher Winder (2014) says, “the Saudi youth, in particular, look to Twitter for conversations that range from apolitical and mundane to partisan and provocative. Calls for reform and jabs at princes exist alongside zealous defenses of Saudi tradition.”

After Arab Spring 2011, the political climate in the gulf region became volatile since the basis of unrest were issues of unemployment, poverty, and human rights issues. Educated youth with high unemployment rates started to protest on the streets. In order to control the social unrest in 2011, King Abdullah announced a series of benefits for Saudis worth $10.7 billion, which addressed inflation, housing, education, and unemployment concerns of youth (Murphy, 2011). Along with the reforms packages, the Saudi monarch also made subtle changes in judiciary and cabinet position, appointing the first female deputy in the education ministry, Dr. Norah Al-Faiz. Women were also appointed to the Shura council in 2013, and the percentage has gone up to 20% of 150 total strength. This politically motivated empowerment of Saudi women in the media hemisphere changed their position. Various other structural changes introduced were like opening up of workspaces for women, relaxation of clerical positions and administrative, judicial, and political reforms, and commercial dealing and business development opportunities were developed for women.

Since the change of government in 2015, under King Salman, the inclusion of women in governance has been made an important step. In 2016, under Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), Vision 2030 focused on integrating female youth into the economy. Various laws regarding women have been eased down. These include driving laws, guardianship laws, voting rights, travel rights, and ownership rights. Though no women find a position in King Salman’s cabinet; still, women have been employed at various strategic positions both inside and outside Kingdom. This is in line with Vision 2030. The Saudi government is committed to appointing women in favorable diplomatic positions and vigorously doing it. For example, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud has been appointed as Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador to the United States.

Similarly, Manal Radwan was appointed as First Secretary for Saudi Arabia’s UN mission (Arabnews, 2017). In addition, Afnan Al-Shuaiby was appointed Secretary-General and Chief Executive of the Arab British Chamber of Commerce in London (Archimandriti, 2018). For the last two decades, the Saudi ruling establishment has been focusing on harnessing the energy of its women’s youth bulge.

In the past four years, there has been a significant rise in the number of women workforces. Statistically, in the age group of 15–37 years, which is roughly 37%, women in Saudi Arabia are about 49%, which points toward the significant contribution the women workforce can make to the economy of Saudi Arabia. However, only about 31% of women belonging to this age group are employed in the workforce (General Authority for Statistics, Saudi Arabia 2020). The Saudi female labor force participation rate (LFPR) rose from 17.7% in Q2 2016 to 33.2% in Q4 2020. Moreover, the unemployment rate among female nationals declined to its lowest level in four years at 24.4% in Q4 in 2020 (Al-Khudair, 2021). Thus, in a nutshell, women’s presence in the Saudi workforce increased both in share and numbers (Al-Khowaiter, 2021). Often this rise in the women workforce is credited to the Vision 2030 goal of increasing the female participation rates by creating more working opportunities in the job market for females. However, the young Saudi women participation rate is less than half of young Saudi males (General Authority for Statistics, Saudi Arabia, 2020).

Due to religious and social restrictions, Saudi women and activists understand their shortcoming about free public mobility and limited freedom of speech and expression. As an outcome, they are now tactically using online platforms and social media to organize and express their ideas resulting in newer forms of networking and urban activism. Amelie Le Renard (2014) writes that women’s movements inside the Kingdom should be understood in a ‘loose sense’ and not coordinated efforts since organized or unorganized protests and political movements are banned. This urban activism is increasingly seen as a new form of engaged citizenship that works at the intersection of formal decision-making and informal urban spaces (Van Hoose & Savini, 2017). Activists and citizens employ informal tactics to test the borders of the legality of the state (Pagano, 2013). However, this practice is considered incompatible with institutionalized planning and is seen as a means of disruption to formal policymaking (Lerner, 2012).

Patricia Wilson (1997) says that individuals tend to aggregate and develop resistance capacities or propose alternative policymaking ways, as it happened in the case of various online resistance and petition movements. For example, in 2011, the hashtag ‘#Tal3mrak’ movement was used as a sarcastic remark for rich and Royal Saudis. Demographically speaking, the two most prominent groups tweeting in Saudi Arabia were the age brackets of 25–34 and 18–24. Moreover, whereas roughly 22% of Saudi Facebook members were female, women made up 37% of the market for Saudi Instagram accounts, and 29% on Twitter platforms in 2019 (Lama, 2019). The debate over the ban on women drivers took on new life in September 2013, when Sheikh Saleh Al-Loheidan, a well-established cleric, warned that driving a car could damage a woman’s ovaries and pelvis. In response, the hashtag #WomensDrivingAffectsOvariesAndPelvises was created to deride his curious theory. Several weeks later, during a rare protest against the ban, hashtags such as #Saudi, #Oct26driving, and #Women2Drive were used to rally support (Chappell, 2013). Saudi women, bloggers, and activists have been using the hashtags #TogetherToEndMaleGuardianship and #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen—to mark their protest against the practice of male guardian laws (Perez, 2016). Women and youth activists are producers of strategic communication for social change, suggestive of communication for development and social change.

3 Women Activism Through Media

In Saudi Arabia, any form of protest against the government is labeled as un-IslamicFootnote 6 by religious authorities (Reuters, 2011), women groups and activists have resorted to cultural mediums to present their opinions and expressions. Young women in Saudi Arabia are emerging as filmmakers, artists, sculptors, painters, chefs, musicians, theater people, sports celebrities, writers, journalists, and TV presenters, which were once fields dominated by men. Sean Foley (2019, p. 5) quotes Sidney Tarrow’s expression for Saudi artists and activists calling them to be ‘Rooted Cosmopolitans,’ who are distinguished based on their global linkages with the local ideas. These activists define themselves in nationalistic terms while advancing their political vision to what Kwame Anthony Appiah calls ‘Cosmopolitan Patriotism’ (as quoted in Foley, 2019, p. 6). Through these professions, women can actively bargain their position against patriarchy and religion, but within the confines of the state.

Before 9/11, discourses on women’s presence in media were nearly absent. Women’s appearance on television shows and soft new items was limited. After 9/11, this image began to change. Al-Saud monarchy mitigated foreign criticism against them by using the ‘Charm Offensive’ strategy in media networks (Al-Rasheed, 2013, p. 151). Royal family women who were never seen before in media were used in this strategy to do the bidding for the government. For example, Loulwa Al-Faisal, Princess Noura bint Faisal Al-Saud, the then Princess Ameera Al-Taweel, Princess Adila bint Abdullah were few emerging faces of women belonging to the royal family. Even before them, women from the royal family have been making a significant contribution to the cause of women, as in the case of Queen Iffat Al-Thunayan, wife of King Faisal. She helped spread women’s education in Saudi Arabia and opened many girls’ schools and universities (Bowen, 2014, p. 16). Royal women of various generations have contributed to women’s causes, rights, education, disabilities, domestic abuses, and health awareness programs. Even today, Princess Lamia bint Majid Saud Al-Saud, grand-daughter of earlier King Saud, works as Secretary-General of Al-Waleed Philanthropy. Another Princess Basma bint Majid bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud works as President of the Art of Heritage, an affiliate of Al-Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women. The charitable organization takes care of women with disabilities (Minthe, 2019).

Due to social reforms in society, women were seen in heightened visibility inside the transnational media of Saudi Arabia. The newsrooms, presenters, talk shows were the command areas where women’s presence was noticed. At the workplace sites, gender identities are appropriated and negotiated since it is an arena for the exhibition of power and resources (Ben Lupton, 2000, p. 34). In 2018, Saudi television anchorwoman Weam Al-Dekheil became the first female news presenter in a state-owned Saudi television channel to deliver an evening news bulletin. Earlier, Jumanah Al-Shami was the first woman to present morning newscasts in 2016 (Day, 2018). Women’s presence in media-generated images generated wider ‘awareness and consciousnesses about women’s issues and rights’ (Alyedreessy et al., 2017, p. 112; Fantasy, 2013; Sakr, 2008, p. 403).

Saudi women TV media personalities like Muna Abu Sulayman, Badariya Al-Bishr, and Lojain Omran have influenced women folk in Saudi Arabia. Muna Abu Sulayman is a TV show host on the women’s talk show Kalam Nawaem, a popular show on MBC is now running for a decade. She has been an open advocate of the Saudi strand of Islamic feminism and believes that women can work alongside men to contribute to society. In her interviews and TV shows, she is reported to have said that there is nothing in Islam that can stop women from working and contributing toward national growth. While Badariya Al-BishrFootnote 7 is a Saudi writer and novelist (Dreyer, 2011), her talk show ‘Badria’ on MBC has been popular for tackling controversial social issues in Saudi society (Jiffry n.d.). Badariya is also an avid blogger and novelist. Lojain Omran is a Saudi television presenter and social media influencer. Her TV programs include Good Morning Arabs, Ya Hala, World of Eve, etc. She is reported to have about 5.4 million followers on social media (Azaiz, 2019). These women have been actively molding people’s opinions and taste inside and outside Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has emerged as a media hegemon in the Arab world (Zayani, 2012). Major newspaper publications like Al-Hayat, Arab News, Saudi Gazette, Asharq Al-Awsat, and popular television networks like Rotana and MBC are owned and managed by Saudi ruling families. Thus, the media’s opinion-making creeps into every aspect of decision-making and conveys a favorable Saudi image abroad. These media material practices involve forming everyday values, especially in countries with high social media penetration.

Although for about 35 years, cinema was banned in Saudi Arabia; however, Saudi elites and women from influential families have been contributing to film production in their capacities. For example, the first Saudi women filmmaker is Haifaa Al-Mansour. She is well known for making films on women’s issues in Saudi Arabia well within the prism of Saudi society and tradition. Her film Wajdja and Perfect Candidate have been widely acclaimed on international platforms. The first film is about the aspirations of a young girl to ride a bicycle which is banned for women in Saudi Arabia, while her mother struggles to keep her marriage. The second film is about a young doctor working in a municipal hospital, her struggle to file her nomination for municipal elections, and society’s response toward her endeavor. In 2018, she was elected as Saudi Arabia’s General Culture Authority member due to her work. Another significant mention is Ahd Kamel, an actress, and filmmaker from Saudi Arabia who worked in films like Hurma and Al-Gondorji. Her film deals with women’s position in Saudi society. She also worked as an actress in Haifaa’s film Wadjda as a school teacher.

Saudi women historically have been involved in writing narratives, essays, columns stories, novels, poetry, and biographical accounts. These accounts are now considered useful for understanding women’s social position (Arebi, 1994). Madawi Al-Rasheed (2013, p. 176), women “are seeking recognition and a voice in writing,” reflecting a more complex, diverse, cosmopolitan, and global image of the Saudi woman. Noha Mellor (2008, pp. 472–473) writes in the context of Arab Journalists that they work as active Cultural Intermediaries who can impact the events in the region. Saudi women are emerging as journalists who can now influence the discourse about women inside the country. For example, Maha Akeel, who has worked as Journalist with Arab News, has been an active contributor to media writing about Saudi Women and their issues. Similarly is the contribution of Somayya Jabarti, who can be credited as the first woman to be appointed as editor in chief, in 2014, of a Saudi Arabian Arabic language newspaper (Flanagan, 2014).

Another profession from which women were debarred entry was singing. Women singing among the public is not considered respectable since many Islamic suras interpreters objected to women singing in public. They claim that women singing in public among men can cause fitna and chaos. Thus any form of music and singing was banned on Saudi soil for years. Especially after 1979, the reverse—Islamization took place in Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, this could not deter women from pursuing their choice. If not in Saudi Arabia, women were practicing, learning, and teaching music as a profession outside Saudi Arabia. For example, Sawsan Al-Bahiti became the voice of Saudi Opera Singing. She is also a qualified coach at the New York Coaching Center and has been singing opera since 2008. She was also actively involved in the hospitality and catering industry in Jeddah (Singh, 2021). After Vision 2030 was launched and the General Entertainment Authority was created to support talents and artists, Al-Bahiti launched herself professionally in Saudi Arabia (Nadeem, 2019).

Manal Al-Dowayan, a contemporary Saudi Artist, is famous for her installation pieces, which primarily examine personal and political issues related to women’s rights in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabian laws. She mentions in her interview that, in Saudi Arabia, painting and arts as a profession were not considered revered professions, and there was not much infrastructure available (Siegal, 2019). Her powerful art installation, ‘Suspended Together’ produced in 2011, gives an insight into the impression of movement and freedom of women inside Saudi Arabia.

4 Conclusion

Women’s activism in Saudi Arabia is contingent upon factors of religiosity and Al-Saud governance. Though this division of power has been detrimental to women’s growth, it has also provided women spaces for empowerment. Through these years, women activists in various capacities and professions have articulated their self-expression through those fractured lines of patriarchy and state conservatism. Thus pushing the state reformist discourse on culture and society toward comparatively liberal and cosmopolitan extremes.

Saudi Arabia is a regionally segregated and diverse nation in geography, tribal factions, and populations hailing from different cultures and traditions. As a result, women’s rights activism in Saudi Arabia is multi-faceted. Homogenizing the whole Saudi population under the garb of the ‘Being Saudi,’ a singular identity would be confusing. Saudi women have been practicing various forms of women activism, sometimes within the rubric of Islam, Hijazi, Najdi, or largely Saudi-tradition. Their ideas and identity diversify into various advocacy practices for women’s causes. However, they have assimilated into a powerful bloc that holds the capacity to influence the public and governmental discourse on state, society, and culture. They try to skip government censorship and prohibitions by not engaging politically, but at the same time, they express their patriotic opinions in the most colorful ways. Women activists in media, art, journalism, music, and sports are trying to create a new symbolic and cultural discourse through their creative work. This creative discourse forms a particular part of Saudi economic and historical narrative, thus becoming political in its appeal, often directing what Asef Bayat calls ‘Social non-movements referring to the collective actions of non-collective actors.’ Through their activism, women have been able to demand more rights, greater freedom, and more openness. Although upon looking at the larger picture, these changes might not create any impact, upon closer look, Saudi Arabia is gradually progressing with incremental changes.