By Arwa Mahdawi
Tue 26 Jun 2018
If I see one more article about Saudi women being able to drive I am going to throw myself under a car. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad Saudi Arabia has lifted the world’s only ban on women driving. But I am also worried. Rather than being a meaningful step towards progress, as much of the coverage suggests, the reversal of the driving ban is quite the opposite. Allowing women behind the wheel is a PR move by Saudi Arabia, designed not to modernise the kingdom, but to render a repressive regime more palatable. Yet many western media outlets seem to be falling for this strategic “women-washing”, as you might call it, hook, line and blinker.
Last month, Saudi Arabia locked up a number of women’s rights campaigners. At midnight on Sunday, when some Saudi women took to the roads for the first time, six high-profile activists who spent years campaigning for that right sat in Saudi Arabian jails, accused – according to declarations in state media reported by Amnesty International – of “contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric”.
The irony of Saudi Arabia jailing women’s rights activists at the same time as it lifted its driving ban did not go unacknowledged by the media. However, the jailed activists were the secondary story. Most headlines have played into the narrative of reform that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has been pushing. This week’s cover of the Economist, for example, read “The Saudi revolution begins”, alongside a cute visual of a niqab with car wheels representing a woman’s eyes. But there is no revolution happening in Saudi Arabia. What is happening is a rebrand.
It was reported last year that Saudi Arabia was setting up global public relations hubs to improve its international image amid its bombing of Yemen and its embargo of Qatar. Well, the Saudi PR machine has been very busy indeed. When Prince Mohammed visited the UK in March, he was accompanied by a massive advertising campaign. Messages such as “He is empowering Saudi Arabian women” covered billboards and taxis. They even appeared in the Guardian.
Saudi Arabia’s messaging points have been regurgitated by the media, too. In November, Thomas Friedman wrote what was essentially a puff piece about Prince Mohammed in the New York Times, titled “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last”. Then, in March, Prince Mohammed appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes, his first interview with an American television network. “He is emancipating women, introducing music and cinema and cracking down on corruption, in a land with 15,000 princes,” announced the introduction to an extremely softball interview. In the 30-minute segment, only a couple were devoted to Yemen, and these were glossed over quickly. After all, who wants to talk about war crimes and dead Yemenis when you can talk about cinemas and women driving? Particularly when the US and the UK are complicit in Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in Yemen.
That is the salient point here. Ultimately, the celebratory coverage around Saudi Arabia lifting its driving ban is a reflection of the fact that it is in the west’s best interest for the kingdom to be painted in a good light. It is terribly inconvenient, after all, to acknowledge that your lucrative trading partner, whose war efforts you are backing, is an abusive, authoritarian regime. Far better to focus on lovely photos of women in cars.
Pride, Prejudice and Gay Privilege
“This feels like one of those flashbacks in The Handmaid’s Tale,” joked my girlfriend as we made our way across Manhattan on Sunday morning, heading towards a gay pride party. “You know, when they’re showing how things used to be.” She was right: New York on Sunday was the antithesis of Trump’s US. Rainbow flags were everywhere and the whole city seemed to have come out to celebrate love at this year’s annual parade. It was wonderful. But, in the current political climate, it was also a little weird. Celebrating pride felt immensely privileged and extremely precarious.
At a time when progress can no longer be taken for granted, this year’s pride was an important reminder of just how far gay rights have come. I have been out for 16 years and it is astonishing to see how quickly attitudes have changed in the US and the UK. Pollsters have called the shift in public opinion on gay rights “unprecedented”. In 2015, when the US supreme court ruled in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, President Obama stated: “I know a change for many of our LGBT brothers and sisters must have seemed so slow for so long. But compared to so many other issues, America’s shift has been so quick.”
It is generally not useful to argue about which minority has it worst. However, I think it is important to acknowledge “gay privilege”, to recognise that gay rights have leapfrogged those of many other minorities in the west. It is particularly important to remember this now and to ensure that the most privileged members of the gay community, particularly affluent, white gay men, support other oppressed groups. Pride has turned into a corporate festival. Now, more than ever, it needs to be a political protest.
Ambulnz: A Sic Example of the US’s Broken Healthcare System
This week’s contender for “I can’t believe this isn’t satire” goes to a US startup called Ambulnz. What fresh, stupidly spelled hell is this, you ask? According to its website, “Ambulnz is a new kind of on-demand ambulance services provider”. I thought all ambulances were on-demand, but what do I know? Wait, there is more! Ambulnz is apparently “transforming medical transportation through the use of disruptive technology”, whatever that means. I am still not sure what Ambulnz does, but it has done a brilliant job of straddling the dystopian intersection of the US’s broken healthcare system and Silicon Valley bombast.