Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As of this month, women in Saudi Arabia will be informed by text if their husbands are divorcing them. Prior to this technological update, husbands could divorce their wives without even notifying them. On its website, the Saudi Ministry of Justice claims that the measure will protect “the rights of female clients.”
However, the text is nothing but a symbolic technological advancement to mask a flourishing system that reinforces men’s ownership of women.
Even with a text notification, Saudi women’s marital rights remain largely the same: effectively non-existent. Knowledge of the divorce does not ensure the right to alimony or affect custody of children.
This female impotence is reflected throughout Saudi life, where a surge in archaic measures is being masked with superficial advances and women are being granted limited rights in conjunction with brutal penalties. Meanwhile, a new generation of women is using tech to tell their stories.
As the divorce notification came into effect last week, 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun decided to barricade herself in a hotel room at Bangkok’s airport. She then begged for the protection of the UN from her Saudi family via Twitter.
Qunun had fled her family after renouncing Islam but says was tricked into giving up her passport in Bangkok’s airport. With the online support of three friends, she started a Twitter account and got the hashtag #SaveRahaf trending, bringing her situation to the attention of the international media and the UN.
So why did Qunun flee? Saudi Arabia’s wali system sees each woman under the control of a male “guardian.” That guardian – a father, brother or other male relative – has control over all major aspects of the woman’s life, including key decisions such as getting married or divorced, and whether they may drive.
It makes it nearly impossible for victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse to seek justice, because the police often insist that women and girls obtain their guardian’s authorization to file complaints, even if – as in Qunun’s case – that complaint concerns the guardian.
Soon after Qunun locked herself inside her hotel room, her father and brother arrived in Bangkok, wishing to talk to her. Qunun tweeted that her father’s arrival in Bangkok “worried and scared [her] a lot.” Earlier, she had tweeted that her cousin threatened she would be slaughtered. Her messages swiftly drew international outrage, and Canadian officials say she has now been granted refugee status.
The Saudi government is well aware of the impact social media can have on dissidents’ chances of a successful escape. In a chilling video which Qunun posted to her Twitter feed on Tuesday, the Saudi Arabia charge d’affaires in Bangkok, Abdalelah Mohammed A. al-Shuaibi, can be heard saying: “We wish they had confiscated her phone instead of her passport.”
Had that been the case, it seems fair to assume that Qunun might already have been forced to return to her family and transported back to her home country.
Qunun’s safety, even with her now massive Twitter following, has been bitterly contested and remains far from guaranteed. But the outlook for dissidents from Saudi Arabia who do not have public support and visibility, or who are already in the hands of Saudi authorities, is so much worse.
In 2017, Dina Ali Lasloom, a 24-year-old Saudi woman, was returned to Saudi Arabia from the Philippines against her will. According to Human Rights Watch, she was fleeing a forced marriage. Her case didn’t spark the social media attention Qunun’s has, and her fate is still unknown.
In December, Twitter suspended the account of activist Loujain al-Hathloul’s father. He had been posting for two days about the alleged sexual harassment and torture – including electric shocks, flogging, months of solitary confinement and threats of rape and murder – his daughter faces in a Saudi government prison. She is being held for protesting the former women’s driving ban.
Saudi authorities have responded by saying the government “does not condone, promote, or allow the use of torture.”
Under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s rule, superficial progress is consistently used as a red herring for archaic Saudi values and practices, which remain alive and strong.
The move toward text notifications of divorce is in line with Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for economic and social reforms, which was announced in 2016. A key purpose of the blueprint was to reduce Saudi Arabia’s economic reliance on oil. Saudi women tend to be a little better educated than Saudi men, and have the potential, if more entered employment, to contribute to economic growth.
It was intended to signal that the Prince was a modernizer, keen to bring Saudi Arabia into the 21st century. Last June’s lift of the Saudi women’s driving ban, as part of a move toward getting women into the workforce, was hailed as early evidence of good intent to that end.
In a choreographed show of acceptance, police officers gave women drivers flowers, and the few who had licenses were cheered as they sat behind the wheel for the first time. Women who were deemed unlikely to be involved in activism were top of the list to receive licenses.
To commemorate the day, Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah Al Saud was pictured in the driver’s seat in the Jeddah desert for the cover of Vogue Arabia. In her accompanying interview, the princess said that she supported the loosening of social constraints spearheaded by Bin Salman.
It is not known how many women in the kingdom now have driving licenses, though thousands applied once the ban was lifted. Despite the nominal right to drive, many women will still depend on their male guardians’ permission to do so. Campaigners like Hathloul, who were rounded up and arrested before the ban was lifted, are still in jail.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused Saudi Arabia of torturing and sexually harassing those female prisoners. A flyer circulating on social media in Saudi Arabia shows activists, including Hathloul, with a traitor stamp over each of their faces. Far from a move into the 21st century, this treatment represents an escalation of oppression against women.
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The introduction of a text notification for divorced women is a superficial nod to progress, but ultimately hollow. Allowing some women to drive might be economically useful, but driving remains a gift, not a right. The fact that campaigners for that right remain incarcerated is the surest sign that Saudi Arabia is not interested in empowering women but only taking advantage of their use to the state.
And, as Qunun’s case shows, for Saudi women escaping a system which sees them permanently infantilized, a voice in the world outside can mean the difference between freedom and erasure.
Saudi Arabia, for all its feints of modern advances, still treats women who stand up for themselves like a deadly threat. It is people like Qunun, who share this reality with the world outside, who are making the greatest strides toward a better life for Saudi women.