I walk into a store in New York City and grab my favorite leggings. A young woman cheerfully greets me at the cash register. When she learns that I am visiting from Saudi Arabia, however, a concerned frown sweeps the smile off her face. I am bombarded with a myriad of absurd assumptions; she tells me she thought women could not leave the house, to which I simply reply: “No, we are not locked up nor restricted.”
From cashiers in the US to lifeguards in Spain, I have had countless interactions based on the same assumptions. However, what bothers me most is that these views remain unchanged after major cultural shifts.
The West continues to impose an outdated and inaccurate stereotype despite significant advancements for Saudi women after the 2017 lifting of the women’s driving ban.
The lifting of the ban had tremendous economic and social effects: Women’s labor force participation has since grown from 16.6 to 33.2 percent — in 2018 alone (the year women started driving), more than 48,000 women entered the workforce — and I started to notice mothers picking up children at tennis practice and carpooling them to school.
The ban lift transformed Saudi Arabia’s social norms, allowing men and women to live in equity.
These advancements, however, are not reflected in social media nor broader news coverage. In December 2019, when Western influencers posted about a Saudi music festival on Instagram, angry comments questioned their promotion of events in “a country where women are treated like second-class citizens.”
Western newspapers and television companies also continued to portray Saudi women as abused victims of injustice, even after the ban was lifted. Such coverage displays a lack of sociocultural awareness and a refusal to acknowledge the progression of Saudi women.
Media outlets should not confine coverage to an outdated view of Saudi women; they should showcase advancements, too.
Western media companies may posit that their coverage intends to help empower Saudi women. However, incomprehensive coverage places a narrow definition of what constitutes “empowerment.”
In a New York Times article, Rafia Zakaria, an American attorney, feminist, journalist and author, argues that women’s empowerment has become a “buzzword,” therefore leaving “little room for the complexities of the recipients.” Zakaria concludes: “Non-Western women are reduced to mute, passive subjects awaiting rescue.”
Western coverage that victimizes Saudi women, as Zakaria mentions, fails to empower, and instead undermines the work of Saudi women to achieve international recognition as autonomous actors.
When will Saudi women be seen for who we truly are? Empowering women means appreciating their worth and respecting their contributions regardless of cultural differences, not exploiting a fabricated narrative that revolves around their hardships.
Western social media users should adjust their views to ongoing cultural shifts. Media outlets should not confine coverage to such an outdated view of Saudi women; they should showcase advancements, too.
Though Saudi women have not spent much time in the front seat, the West must recognize their ability to drive.
• Lena Alshanafey is a student at Advanced Learning Schools. She is founder and editor-in-chief of Novus Digest, a digital youth-led newspaper that serves as a platform to empower Saudi youth.