Illustration by Shaikha.

Do Saudi Women Need Saving?

Spurred by misguided aspirations to “liberate Saudi women”, western coverage of women’s issues in Saudi Arabia often neglects to provide an unbiased account of the situation.

May 9, 2022

It seems that in recent years Western news outlets have taken it upon themselves to liberate Saudi women from the oppressive culture that guards them. Noticeably, following the Gulf war and 9/11, there was a rise in the number of publications in the U.S. and U.K. focusing on Saudi women. This media coverage was described as “Intense media interest in characterizing the Saudis, their ‘oppressed’ women.” The mission to liberate Saudi women starts with the assumption that women in Saudi are oppressed and requires the news article coverage to be curated to maintain that idea. By controlling the topics covered and the voices featured in the Western news media about Saudi women, Western news outlets are able to continue legitimizing prejudice and a false narrative of oppression about Saudi women.
This bias entails many things, one of which is the selective picking of the topics covered in regards to women in Saudi. News outlets purposefully cover topics regarding Saudi women that can be instrumentalized to produce an argument for human rights. After browsing through the news media feed, articles covering Saudi women’s ability to drive seem much more prominent than ones about Saudi women’s education. Searching for “Saudi women driving” on Google, CNN, BBC or NBC News, one would get ample news reports on the matter. Searching for “Saudi women's education” yields little to no results on the other hand.
When looking at this one must consider that Saudi Arabia has been educating girls in Dar Al Hanan (roughly translates to the house of kindness and warmth, a school founded by princess Iffat Al-Thunayan) since 1955. This is followed by a great focus on education for the Saudi youth, including women, and forming the General Presidency for the Education of Girls in 1960 to ensure that the Saudi women are part of the rising and development of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia also houses one of the largest women’s universities in the world, the Princess Nourah Bint Abdul Rahman University, and the country has more women in universities than men. All this is to say that it is not a matter of a lack of material in this area, but it rather seems to be a deliberate exclusion of topics that do not play well into the constructed narrative. This disparity between the number of results for the two searches is alarming, and the fact that it is a recurrent pattern is unsettling.
Little is done to understand the laws, values and principles of Saudi Arabia by Western journalists. In addition to that, they impose Western values when framing their stories. This is important to note because framing stories of Saudi Arabian women through a western lens does not do justice to the complexities voiced by these women. This can be seen in the extreme case of the FEMEN radical feminist group who were criticized for their protest in support of Afghani women. The claim centered at the heart of their protest revolved around the veil (a religious garment) being seen as a tool of control and silencing. The protest sparked outrage because of the prejudice that it was built on. FEMEN responded that the only Afghan opinions that mattered to them were those of Afghani women who shared their values. In this case, they blatantly disregarded what other Afghani women had to say. Though this is not a news report and the group is considered to be radical, it illustrates a form of prejudice that takes shape more subtly in Western news reports.
Western notions of freedom and liberty seem to be the lens through which Western media writes about Saudi Arabia. The claim that women are only empowered by showing more of their body is not a value that many people in Saudi Arabia share. Disregarding the differences in values, many news articles start with assumptions like “the guardianship system is bad”, “segregation between men and women in restaurants and schools is bad”, “promoting being covered is also a bad thing”, and so on. Not going through the process of justifying those beliefs as objectively as one can implies that the author of the news article believes them to be the default or that they stem from a superior set of values or beliefs that need not be justified. I am not attempting to argue for what the correct beliefs are in this case or how the middle ground should be found. Rather I am saying that Western news articles are often out of touch with the culture they write about.
This disconnect in terms of values is significant in regards to Western news media because it plays a determinative role, not only in the way people speak on behalf of Saudi women, but also in who is given a voice in news reports. For instance, one can notice that only activists opposing the guardianship law were interviewed on the CNN article titled “Saudis petition king to end male guardianship system”. Another instance is the New York Times article “Saudi Guardianship Laws Could Be Set to Change. Here’s How Women Are Reacting”. The article only features supporters of the change, with no opposing views.
It is not that I believe that the people who were able to speak in those articles were wrong, but by allowing only one side to voice their opinions, these articles create a skewed understanding of the issue at hand. This becomes more significant when we consider that this is a recurring pattern in Western news outlets when writing about Saudi Arabia. This constructed narrative is not challenged but rather entertained. Only after a deeper analysis of the type of topics covered in Western news outlets can one identify a bias that hides behind a facade of support and empowerment. But very few choose to do so, and therein lies the problem.
Nouf Abbasi is a Contributing Writer. Email her at
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