In the wake of the Arab Spring, Saudi women have taken the wheel. They did it literally by defying the country's notorious driving ban and figuratively by attempting to advance their rights in a country that allows women almost no rights without male guardianship or representation.
In addition to the battles Saudi women have been waging on the ground and behind the scenes for equal rights, they have had a champion in Princess Ameera al-Taweel, the wife of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud, one of the more progressive of the thousands of Princes of the Saudi family and one of the richest men in the world.
Much like his peers in the Middle East, the Prince has been utilizing his wife as a public relations tool to project a more modern image of his country to the West. And it's been working. Ameera recently completed a slew of press events in the US, criticizing the kingdom's rigid laws for women, supporting the removal of the driving ban and participating in international forums such as the Clinton Global Initiative to tackle rising unemployment among Arab youth.
It has been refreshing, to say the least, to watch an articulate and intelligent Saudi woman from the ruling family campaign for women's rights in a country that normally prefers the voice of women to be well, non-existent.
And that's precisely what has landed Princess Ameera al- Taweel in hot water with her brother in-law, Prince Khalid bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz, who last week publicly reprimanded the Princess for her increasingly high profile image, threatening his brother to reign in the "repeated appearance of his wife in the media," warning him of "severe" repercussions if the younger Prince does not stop "practices which violate our family, religion and Saudi values."
Well there's a slap on the wrist for you. While it may appear to some that the older Prince is just protecting Saudi culture, Prince Khalid bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz's statements actually reflect the real and deep-rooted overall mentality in the kingdom: That women are the property of men.
It is precisely this kind of thinking that not only keeps women off the roads in Saudi Arabia, but out out of the offices and seats of government and out of public life, confining them to the home and relegating them to the back seat indefinitely.
What is also disturbing about the Prince's statements is the connection he draws between his sister in-law's high-profile work and his family's honor. Around the world, and specifically in the Middle East, this idea of women symbolizing honor may sound romantic, but it is the direct source of horrendous acts of violence against women, such as "honor killings," which justify murdering women who have supposedly damaged their family prestige, as the Prince stipulates:
Our family honor is a red line and if you don't respect this honor, then we do ... I now tell you that if you do not come back to your senses and stop your deviation, then our response will be very severe and harsh next time without prior warning.
Using a man's wife to publicly threaten and blackmail him sounds like the plot from a classic (sexist) movie. I mean, are men in 2012 seriously still this insecure that they have to pin their prestige on women and use them as pawns in what is obviously a much larger issue of power?
Saudi women may be pushing ahead with their fight to expand the rights in a kingdom that is determined to continue curbing them. If they have their way, one more Saudi woman may disappear from the global stage.
Hopefully Prince Ameera will demonstrate to the women of her country and the world that she is no bargaining chip, and usher Saudi Arabia into a new era for women.
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