With March 1, 2015, marking the beginning of women’s history month, it is the perfect time to examine Western media portrayals of Arab women, with a brief look at recent coverage on women’s activism in the Arab world.
Western media coverage of the Arab uprisings, which began in December 2010, highlighted women’s activism but completely disregarded the region’s longer history of political protest around women’s rights.
Coverage of Saudi Arabia’s Women2Drive campaign was a good example of this. The initiative, which was kick started by activist Manal al-Sharif, encouraged Saudi women with foreign drivers’ licenses to defy the ban on women drivers and get behind the wheel on June 17, 2011.
The movement’s offline activities gained significant traction through the use of the Internet. Organizers encouraged women to post photos and videos of themselves driving on sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. About 100 women took part in the June 17 protest. Al-Sharif was arrested and another woman, Shaima Jastaina, was sentenced to ten lashes, though King Abdullah eventually interceded and revoked the punishment.
According to the Western media narrative, these events were the first time women in the Kingdom had expressed a desire for greater political rights and freedoms. In reality, however, this was far from the case. In November 1990, before the invention of Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter, forty-seven women defied Saudi’s driving ban and drove their cars on one of the busiest streets in the capital city Riyadh. Today, women such as Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysa al-Amoudi are still defying the ban.
In addition to the historical erasures, international media representations of al-Sharif were telling. In a TED Talk, al-Sharif described how she was portrayed as a “hero” outside the Kingdom. These depictions revolved around a Western, liberal, secular framework about what it means to be a women’s rights activist. It is a framework al-Sharif, herself, does not adopt, insisting, instead, on her proud Saudi identity: “I’m a proud Saudi woman, and I do love my country, and because I love my country, I’m doing this. Because I believe a society will not be free if the women of that society are not free.”
In Saudi Arabia and around the Arab world, women’s activism is rooted in local problems and informed by indigenous values and norms, no matter what Western media says and does.