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Empowerment or xenophobia?

By Rafia Zakaria
25 January 2012

IN the hysteria of near-coups, almost-wars and December weddings, you may have missed the news of Saudi Arabia’s decision to implement a law permitting only women to work in lingerie stores in the kingdom.

A directive was issued by the country’s labour ministry on Jan 4, 2012, in this regard. The ministry’s announcement came after a boycott campaign initiated by Saudi women fed up with the awkwardness of purchasing undergarments from male shopkeepers, most of whom are foreign workers.

In the days following the directive, Saudi women and the Saudi labour ministry have both touted the law as a means of solving the unemployment problem faced by Saudi females, suggesting that working at lingerie stores could now be a way for them to use their education to support their families.

Among foreign media outlets, who invariably drool for the barest taste of an empowerment story from Saudi Arabia, the implementation of the lingerie law was paraded as a tremendous victory for Saudi women and their struggle for equality.

In the UK, the BBC called it “not far short of a social revolution”. In the United States, Fox News highlighted that the law bravely contradicted an edict by the country’s top cleric who had criticised the impropriety of women potentially selling lingerie to men — forgetting, of course, to mention that lingerie shops that would employ women have also simultaneously banned men.

Lingerie and liberation, with its risqué undertones and transgressive insinuations, make for an undoubtedly alluring mix. The idea of Saudi women’s rebellion defined by taking back what lies so close to their bodies is a rich metaphor for the subversion of other, greater injustices inflicted upon them.

Women around the world, in Pakistan and elsewhere, can empathise with the awkwardness of making such purchases, the potential lasciviousness of public encounters that deal with the most private of spheres. In our empathy-starved age, this is indeed an argument for the universality of women’s struggles.

Criticism of the lingerie law has been held back by perhaps just these imperatives. In the weeks since the decision to implement it, few feminist commentators have pointed out the law’s unabashedly racist presumptions that pit the Saudi woman searching for a job against the equally disenfranchised, equally invisible foreign man.

The recipe is an old one. In the late 1800s, nascent movements for women’s suffrage in the US were divided over the issue of voting rights just for women, versus voting rights for all, including African American men. In the second decade of this millennium, the rights of Saudi women are being presented as an alternative to granting rights to those deemed even less worthy — the foreigners who serve them.

Thus contextualised, the lingerie law in Saudi Arabia is the product of a country besieged by twin conundrums: the revolutions rocking its immediate neighbourhood and the rising numbers of migrant workers who sweep Saudi floors, clean Saudi bathrooms and cook Saudi food. The combination is a worrisome one for oil-rich Saudis committed to ensuring their own undemocratic supremacy.

The same Saudi labour ministry that passed the recent directive reserving jobs in lingerie stores has been busy with other reforms that aim to reduce the percentages of migrant workers in the country.

In May 2011, it announced that all visas or iqamas (official identity cards depicting an individual as a resident of the Kingdom) for foreign workers would be capped at six years as part of the government’s new ‘Saudisation’ programme.

Under its auspices, a three-tier system classifies private companies into three categories based on the number of Saudi nationals they hire. Only those hiring a large percentage of Saudis, the ‘red’ companies, are permitted to renew the iqamas of their foreign workers.

The possibility of a democratic revolt in Saudi Arabia fuelled by foreign maids and sweepers is admittedly slim. At the same time, we live in a decade that has seen the ouster of president Mubarak, Qadhafi and the election of an African-American president in the US — all fanciful fantasies until their realisation.

Considering the inequities faced by migrant workers in Saudi Arabia requires not a debate on the likelihood of a revolution but an acknowledgment that the emerging paradigm there pits Saudi women against foreign men, considering one worthy of more rights just to eliminate the threat presented by another.

In the guise of empowering women, ‘Saudisation’ appropriates the language of liberty to justify xenophobia, cleverly using one disempowered group to further repress and silence another. Under its sly calculations, Saudi women are set up to receive bits and pieces of empowerment only if they stand ready to ignore its ugly origins — stand ready to denigrate foreigners, men or women, as undeserving of the rights they demand for themselves.

Against such realities, announcements such as the one made this past September by King Abdullah permitting Saudi women to vote and run for office in the country’s municipal elections are not recognitions of the core equality of men and women, but a prioritisation of a Saudi woman’s ‘Saudi-ness’ over her femininity.

It is the uplifting, anointing, incredible power of being Saudi then that overcomes the unfortunate fact of their gender. Saudi women are worthy of the vote or of jobs in lingerie shops not because they are women, but because unlike the undeserving foreign Indonesian maids and Pakistani chauffeurs, they are born Saudi.

Liberating impulses, from women or minorities or any of the worlds unequal others, deserve attention and solidarity because they recognise the core dignity of a human being beyond birthplace, tribe, gender or nationality.

If Saudi women wish for the world’s support in their quest for empowerment, they must ensure that their agenda for liberation does not rise from trampling others who are powerless, and recognise not just those injustices attached to being born female but also the onerous burdens of being born foreign.

The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.


Originally published in Dawn

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