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Do We Really Want to Talk About Mass Surveillance?

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Last Saturday, thousands gathered in Washington, DC, for a “Stop Watching Us” anti-surveillance rally. People are legitimately worried about the NSA reading our texts, chats, and emails, listening in on our phone conversations, and, ultimately, forcing us to regulate our speech out of fear. This is how democracies die. There are places, of course, where democracy doesn’t live in the first place. Like Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is already a full-blown surveillance state for more than half of its population.

Wajeha al-Huwaider, a tireless Saudi women’s rights campaigner, describes her country as “the world's largest women's prison.” At the same time that the “Stop Watching Us” rally was going on, more than 100 Saudi women across the kingdom ignored their government’s warnings, got behind the wheels of cars, and took quick, defiant spins. Saudi Arabia is the only country where women are banned from driving, not by law, but by the customary mandate of ultraconservative religious leaders who appear to know very little about actual women. As a cleric said last month: “Driving hurts women’s ovaries.” That sounds stupid, because it is. But there is nothing funny about it. Saudis live with the harshest gender apartheid of any nation state. Last year, the country even announced plans to build a woman-only city where educated women can pursue their professional ambitions—once they find someone to drive them there and back every day. The driving ban is a symptom of a deeply held misogyny that restricts women in multi-dimensional ways.

Pervasive mass surveillance is a way of life for Saudi women, who every day remain at the mercy of fathers, husbands, sons, drivers, and even complete strangers in order to get to work, school, or the market or to conduct even the most basic errands. It is expensive, because women have to pay their drivers’ salaries and housing. But the costs far exceed economic ones. It’s important to remember that right to drive, while vitally important, is also symbolic. It represents autonomy, privacy, freedom of movement, and so much more.

A day before Saturday’s planned drive-in, the Saudi Interior Ministry announced, “All violations will be dealt with—whether demonstrations or women driving.” Saudi women leaders of the driving movement asked known global supporters for help. At the last minute, a group of activists gathered on the sidewalk outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, in a hastily thrown-together protest. Thousands of others sent letters and faxes to the embassy and the king, in solidarity with the women.

Saturday’s was the third such driving demonstration in Saudi Arabia since the first in 1990, and it is evident that years of women protesting, organizing, and lobbying have shifted the cultural tide. In the past, women have been imprisoned, lost their jobs, and had their careers destroyed in retaliation. Madeha Al Ajaroush, who has twice driven, despite having been forced to sign a pledge not to drive, drove again on Saturday. During a special interview with Robin Morgan posted as a stand-alone exclusive on WMCLIVE.com and on iTunes, she noted that she now chooses, for the first time, to publicly state her name in defiance of the fear of retaliation.

The fact of the simultaneous “Stop Watching Us March” on Saturday was a glaring irony: Saudi girls and women live in the most oppressive state in the world when it comes to institutionalized, group-sanctioned, government-enabled surveillance.

Saudi women’s freedom of movement is nonexistent. Not only are Saudi women prohibited from driving, but they are electronically monitored and restricted from crossing the border without a male guardian’s permission. Men in the country are now informed by text of the whereabouts of their wives, sisters, mothers, daughters, or other female wards in a system of electronic surveillance that the NSA might find enviable for the ease with which it was implemented. Although the monitoring system has been in place since 2010, last year it was expanded so that men no longer have to request the information, but receive it through push technology, unsolicited. The technology, however, is not the problem. The problem is that just at a time when traditional male guardianship should be phased out, it is being extended.

In the midst of international outrage over surveillance, we cannot muster mass movement against and serious international condemnation of Saudi Arabia for its treatment of women in the face of decades of Saudi women’s clear commitment to and desire for change. Oil. Money. Nation state rules. Realpolitik. Our defense of universal human rights rings hypocritical and hollow when it comes to women. Our diplomacy is reduced to one group of men agreeing not to disturb another group of men’s right to dictate what “their women” can and cannot do. Maybe if women’s rights across the globe were not quite so negotiable, maybe if we did not trade them for power and money and oil and weapons, then we would not be in quite this situation ourselves. As a country, we did not refuse to ally ourselves with leaders who treat women like property or helpless children, who restrict their freedom of expression, and who monitor their every movement. If we had, would our government think harder about abusing its own power in that direction?

Maybe you are shaking your head and thinking this is feminist naïveté. Why? It seems eminently reasonable to suggest that a government that understands the importance of making the privacy, free speech, and civil rights of women in allied countries a nonnegotiable priority might be less likely to so brazenly violate those rights itself. It would, after all, reflect an entirely different set of norms.


Make your voice heard against gender apartheid and for the basic human right to mobility, today.
E-mail the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in the US: info@saudiembassy.net
Fax King Abdullah Abdul Al Saud of Saudi Arabia: 011 (966) 1-491-2726
Share your statements of support, photos and vidoes of support demonstrations, and copies of e-mails to the Saudi government or embassies. By E-mail: oct26driving@gmail.com On Twitter: @oct26driving

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Soraya Chemaly
Director, WMC Speech Project, Activist, Writer
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