Women entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia: unveiling the feminist political activists

Women entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia: unveiling the feminist political activists

Contemporary social movements combating women’s inequality have been explicitly visible in an unprecedented way over the last decade, particularly within the #MeToo movement, which began in 2017. Such global political activism led the world to witness women (and men’s) grass-roots campaigns in the form of organised protests in public spaces calling out their leaders for their idleness and advocating policy reforms regarding gender equality. This has revitalised the transnational “global sisterhood” necessary for social change and effective political transformation.  However, how can we explore women’s capacities for political engagement and resistance in contexts where social transformations simply cannot take place through democratic engagement? Where there is no space for rigorous critique and dissent, no legal platform for collective political activism, nor social movement organisations to unite them, in places such as the Middle East?


As the ten-year anniversary of the Arab Spring passes, and the ostensibly unsolvable conflicts resume, we continue to question what its true legacy will be. We have witnessed decades of oppression under dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa, which ban the basic human right to protest against the government and ruling parties. Yet the world has witnessed hundreds of thousands of men and women marching the streets – side by side – demanding political change. Those regimes answered such demands with death, detention, and for some, forcible displacement. Thus, the journey towards democratisation remains low with modest political and economic reforms. Coverage of the Arab Spring events has focused on these atrocities, as well as the economic and political impact on the region and the Western world. This has meant that we know very little about the unrelenting micro-forms of political activism and acts of resilience that women in particular have engaged in during the Arab Spring, such as their everyday fight for gender equality in their societies, and the remarkable bravery they embody while doing so.


The Arab Spring began in 2011 across the Middle East. Fast forward to February 2021 and we witnessed the prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul released from prison after 1,001 days in custody. Loujain was a leading campaigner for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, including the movement for women to dive in Saudi Arabia, before the law changed in late 2017.  She was detained and sentenced to five years and eight months in prison for pushing a foreign agenda and using the internet to harm public order. Unfortunately, this is not new. The first act of feminist political activism and solidarity from Saudi women took place during the Gulf War on November 6th 1990, when 47 women took to the streets for a secretly organised and unprecedented driving protest in the country’s capital Riyadh. The women were arrested, their passports where confiscated and they and their husbands were banned from foreign travel for one year. Whilst stability was restored, the women’s efforts were not forgotten. Inspired by the Arab Spring in neighbouring countries, an informal network of activists set up an online campaign called Women2Drive, and organised a protest for June 17th 2011. On that day, they drove in defiance of the law across major cities of Saudi Arabia – this time in a ‘scattered protest’. They were also arrested and detained. However, despite worldwide praise for the driving ban being lifted on June 24th 2018, some women activists remain in prison and on trial for their activism.


 Saudi activist Loujain Al-Hathloul makes her way to appear at a special criminal court for an appeals hearing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

It is essential to highlight the history of Saudi women’s explicit activism in order to open our eyes to other forms of lower risk social movements in which they may be engaging. Saudi women are highly educated and control much of the wealth in the country, and currently account for 39% of the total number of registered business owners in the Kingdom. Therefore, one space being used as a legitimate platform to engage in social and political change is business.


Growing up in Saudi Arabia as a Muslim woman of British-Syrian descent meant I was fascinated by the diversity of gender systems across the places I called home. I by no means argue that gender equality has been achieved in the UK, or indeed in any country in the world. However, the plight of Saudi women needs to be understood within a lens that is not is not blinkered by our Western perceptions of what a feminist activist looks like, in order for us to appreciate their situated version of everyday activism and its ability to lead to lasting socio-political change.  My decade long study, which began in 2010, explores how whilst some women have been explicit in their activism, and have been severely prosecuted for it, other Saudi women have engaged in a more silent yet highly effective form of activism.


The women I followed were business owners who decided to break away from gender-discriminating employment in the hope of self-empowerment and financial independence. However, what (un)consciously transpired was a feminist activist soul, who wanted to use her now perceived self-empowered position to empower – and “free” – other women around her. This somewhat innate feeling of “I am OK now – and so I want to help other women achieve their goals” was the most inspiring and humbling aspect of my study.


These “silent” feminist activist practices by the women entrepreneurs show how their frustration with the current system is followed by a desire to empower other women, rather than succumbing to its limits. For example, these female entrepreneurs aimed to empower women within their organisations by providing a segregated or women-only office space, on-site daycare and safe transport to and from work, particularly before women the driving ban was lifted in 2018. Rania, a 35-year-old woman with an accountancy firm, told me:


“I decided from the day I got this office space that it would be a women‐only office. It means I can employ women whose guardians also do not like them interacting with men at work and gives them a chance to learn, evolve and be financially independent ... to have a purpose in her life beyond the home.”  


Other women, like Salma, set up a nursery on her premises, with all fees paid. Karma hired a driver and a mini-van to bring employees to work and home, overcoming obstacles of them travelling alone or with strangers. Even though women are now allowed to drive, it seems that the change in mindset and culture will take longer to become embedded and normalised in the community. Maram, a fashion designer and boutique owner, has led what she terms a “revolution of colour”, selling colourful abayas (cloaks) for Saudi women to wear. This silent activism against the culture of Saudi women wearing black, influenced other women, as she explains:


 “I quit my job and went travelling around India after facing blatent gender-discrimination against my promotion at work. The women there wear the most incredible colours, it amazed and inspired me everyday. So when I came back I set up a boutique to sell colourful abayas for Saudi women to wear.” She continues:

“Islam did not say women have to wear black, it says she has to be conservative. So why are we all wearing black? So men can’t tell the difference between us? So we don’t show any personality or any identity?”


Follow-up interviews with Maram revealed that indeed wearing colourful abayas had become a ‘silent’ feminist movement for Saudi women rebelling against the tradition of wearing black, whilst maintaining the modesty of Islamic teachings. Interestingly, the BBC wrote an article in 2018 highlighting how Saudi women had been observed wearing their abayas inside out, as a protest against wearing them altogether. Significantly, over recent years, and in a massive change to deeply embedded traditions, it has become acceptable for Saudi women to wear colourful abayas. This may not have been an organised movement by the women, but the individual actions of those such as Maram contributed to an increasing feminist consciousness and a subsequent collective agency for social change.


Hanna was on a journey to find a platform through entrepreneurship to connect to other women. Her aim was to raise their feminist consciousness, teach them their rights and empower them. She volunteers at the centre for businesswomen at the Chamber of Commerce, giving educational lectures on how to become an entrepreneur. She is expected to deliver instructions on how to register a business. However, she confesses:


“Once I am in the room, I become a mentor, an advocate of women, an activist for women. I talk about how they should believe in themselves, work together, support and lean on each other, employ other women. I always emphasise that they question the culture, and know their rights in Islam that are sometimes hidden within old patriarchal and tribal traditions. They need to hear this. They need to. Otherwise we get stuck in this cycle of reproducing oppressive traditions without understanding their origin.”


In 2013, the King issued a royal decree, granting women 30 seats in his advisory council. He stated that women should always hold at least a fifth of its 150 seats. Ameera, who owns a consultancy firm, is one of the council members. She states of her experiences in the council:


“Of course, there are some power struggles and some discomfort from the men, but isn’t this the case everywhere in the world? Even America was not ready for a female to be in power. We will get there.”


My study has shown that whilst explicit activism and Western-style protest is dangerous for women in a country such as Saudi Arabia – as the experience of Al-Hathloul and others has shown – this does not mean it is not happening every day in less overt ways. Their quiet solidarity shows us how the Western vision of activism in democratic contexts does not represent all women’s feminist movements around the world. It’s important, if we are going to fully appreciate women's bravery and their global political potential, that each case of feminist organising for political change should be explored and understood within its own context.


The women I interviewed are patriotic and their activism was for “all Saudi women”. They are proud and hopeful that the country is taking slow but sustainable steps towards achieving equal rights between men and women in a legal sense. Whilst the rest of the world observes, we must also reflect on where we are at on our own journey to gender equality, and not become complacent thinking in thinking we are further ahead than we actually are.





Does ethical porn exist? Does ethical porn exist?  Does ethical porn exist? 

Does ethical porn exist?

BY Lily CanterRead More >
Does ethical porn exist?