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By Najah Alotaibi
Two recent events have brought Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s rights into sharp relief. First, Saudi police arrested a young model for wearing an apparently “indecent” outfit while filming a shoot at a cultural site. Her crime? Failing to wear an abaya, the traditional Saudi dress that has come to symbolise the Kingdom’s strict code of modesty.
The second was the release of leading women’s rights activist Mariam Alotaibi. She was detained for fleeing her father’s home. Mariam’s crime? Breaking away from her male guardian. Alotaibi was imprisoned for 100 days.
In the shadow of the arrests of women seeking only to exercise their freedom, Saudi Arabia’s promises to eradicate extremism ring hollow. How can policies which openly discriminates on the basis of gender, embody the principles of justice and moderation?
During the Arab-American Islamic Summit in Riyadh last May, the country pledged to consolidate moderate Islamic principles, and fight extremism in all forms. At the summit, the World Centre for the Fight against Extremism known as ‘Edital’, meaning moderation, was inaugurated. Its stated aim is to combat extremism, intellectually and digitally, and to promote coexistence, as well as, tolerance.
Even before ‘Etidal’, Saudi Arabia made limited progress in establishing some basic universal rights. For example, the Saudi regime has actively targeted the influence that theological establishments have over public life, by stripping the religious police of their powers. Yet the state has so far shown none of that sense of mission to enforce an institutionalised women’s rights.
Women are still denied even the basic freedom of movement which renders them vulnerable. Even though Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s much vaunted Vision 2030 promised a greater political and economic rights for women, there have no efforts to reform the Guardianship System, the very embodiment of gender inequality which significantly limits a woman’s freedom.
The absence of gender equality goes beyond questions of morality. It affects the very security of the state. A society which denigrates women and pushes them to edge of society, can have a profound impact on mental health and even ideology. It can lead to extremism. The number of Saudi Arabian women radicalised has dramatically increased. According to Saudi Arabia’s own Interior Ministry, an estimated 46 Saudi women have joined extremist groups abroad in since 2011.
Saudi Arabia’s approach to fighting extremism has been generally received favourably by its western allies. But the Kingdom’s strategy has taken a top-down ideological approach as opposed to a grass-roots one. For example, Saudi Arabia has established well-publicised centres to combat extremist ideas in the society. These institutions offer counselling for extremists, and a comprehensive reform programme. Yet, without the organic promotion of tolerance and human rights, including gender equality, combating religious extremism through such strategy is futile
The central error of policy makers in the Kingdom is to disregard the link between security, extremism and women’s rights. Abandoning reforms on gender equality and human rights is directly linked to the growth of unrest and extremism. The moment the citizens of a country begin to feel that they are being denied basic rights, they are vulnerable to radicalisation, and seek a sense of meaning not in their society, but in the arms of extremists.
Women are the change agents of society. Increasing gender inclusivity will reduce women joining extremist groups. It will empower the women of Saudi to act as proponents of tolerance with homes and communities. Defeating extremism goes hand-in-hand with progressing women’s rights.
 Al-Hayat Newspaper. 2015, 46 in Saudi Arabia with ISIS in Syria and 1375 accused of belonging to the organization. accessed online from http://www.alhayat.com/m/story/10945123#sthash.9bHLQkHM.N12bE2xv.dpbs