In an exclusive interview, Ameerah Al-Taweel on why the kingdom’s women won’t accept a reversal on equal rights.
While much of the Arab Middle East has been convulsed by revolutionary change over the past year, Saudi Arabia’s ruling class has sought to straddle a fine and precarious line between reaction and reform. On one side, activists have begun to use social media to agitate for liberalization of the kingdom’s laws and institutions. On the other, hardline conservatives have vowed to oppose any significant shift in the status quo. Crown Prince Sultan’s death on Oct. 22 may have shifted momentum in the direction of the latter camp, with the ailing King Abdullah having named his half brother, Interior Minister Prince Nayef, an ally of ultraconservatives, as heir to the throne.
Perched between the camps is the 27-year-old current wife of Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (the king’s nephew), Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel. Part of a ruling family focused on maintaining the existing order, Ameerah is also an eloquent member of the Twitter generation who has begun to use her social prominence to advocate for women. “We want equal rights, we want what God has given us, the respect and the dignity to live as an equal citizen,” she says.
King Abdullah himself has made some tentative moves to expand women’s rights. Two years ago he angered conservative clerics by launching coed university education. More recently he decreed that women would be able to vote and run for office—in the 2015 municipal elections, a delay designed in part to avoid roiling those same clerics.
With Sultan’s death, some activists have begun to wonder whether the openings of the past few years
will turn out to be only a moderately liberal interlude between decades of tight restrictions on women’s lives. Yet the princess remains hopeful. “I don’t see Saudi women accepting going back,” she says.
Does the opinionated wife of one of the world’s wealthiest men see herself going into politics in a few years? Perhaps. “If I am going to be empowered and express what I feel and express what I think, then definitely I would love to serve, but it really depends,” she says, emphasizing that for now she believes she can do the most for women from her position as vice chair of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation.
Certainly a Saudi princess with a powerful, wealthy husband runs less of a risk in speaking out about reform than many less-well-connected activists.
As one women’s advocate notes, “Women are being threatened in every way possible for doing what she is advertising, yet she skates by untouched.”
The princess is nonetheless wading into the fight. Saudi activists regularly tweet women’s stories of injustice to Ameerah’s Twitter account and urge the princess to get involved. In fact, it was Ameerah who announced online in September that the king had lifted a judge’s sentence of 10 lashes for a Jidda woman who had defied the kingdom’ s ban on women driving.
“It is not protecting women, it is harming them,” she says of the driving restrictions, noting that she has heard horrific stories of women being harassed and raped by their drivers.
She admits that she loves driving her GMC through the desert but says it is a question of economics, not road thrills: hiring a driver is simply too expensive for many women.
The Ministry of Labor recently told a group from the Women’s Chamber of Commerce that their suggestions—including employer-paid transport to work and quotas to increase women in manufacturing—were “superficial.” In response, the princess tweeted, “Superficial! It is superficial not to empower women in industries & not to listen to women experts.”
“For us that was kind of a slap, but it did not make us give up,” Princess Ameerah says. “If obstacles are created, we find a way to maneuver around them.”
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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of the New York Times best seller The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has spent the last five years reporting on entrepreneurship and economic development in mid- and post-conflict zones, including Afghanistan, Rwanda and Bosnia, and is the author of the March 2011 Newsweek cover story “The Hillary Doctrine.”