Three scantily dressed samba dancers wearing traditional feather headdresses laid bare the limits of social liberalisation in Saud Arabia when they earlier this year danced on the streets of Jizan, a historically conservative city on the border with Yemen.
Invited to participate in the Jizan Winter Festival, the dancers, in stark contrast with the traditional, all-covering black robes often worn by Saudi women in public, sported blue coloured feathers that left their legs, arms, and bellies uncovered.
Faced with a conservative backlash, Jizan governor, Prince Mohammed bin Nasser, pledged “necessary measures to prevent all (future) abuse.” It was not clear what steps Mr. Bin Nasser might take, but his response acknowledged that the rapid pace of change might be just too fast for some in the kingdom.
To be sure, the dancer’s garb went beyond the liberalised norms informally laid down by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which no longer require women to cover themselves in public in head to foot black-coloured, shapeless garb.
The criticism of the dancers’ appearance followed a spike in sexual harassment incidents during a music festival in December despite the organizer’s attempt to warn against it on their social media accounts.
The dancers and the festival are part of an explosion of cultural events in Saudi Arabia that involve far-reaching social change and have helped create a Western-style entertainment sector in the once socially ultra-conservative kingdom. Entertainment is one pillar of Mr. Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan to change Saudi society in support of a bid to diversify the kingdom’s oil-export-dependent economy.
Beyond introducing Western-style entertainment and liberalised dress norms, social change has also involved lifting a ban on women’s driving, expanding professional opportunities for women, and loosening restrictions on gender mixing.
However, social liberalisation has gone hand-in-hand with ever greater repression of dissent and freedom of expression and a stepped-up effort to put nationalism rather than religion at the core of Saudi identity.
With many intellectuals, clerics, bloggers, and activists already behind bars, Saudi Arabia last month warned that anyone spreading “baseless” rumours on social media could face up to five years in prison and a hefty fine.
The warning came after Saudi entertainment chief Turki al-Sheikh, a close associate of Mr. Bin Salman, denied reports of harassment of women on their way back from a concert that was cancelled in early January.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia recently put to death 84 people, many of them Shiite activists, in the kingdom’s largest mass execution in recent history.
The executions occurred in the same week that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Saudi Arabia. The visit demonstrated Western willingness to lift an informal boycott of Mr. Bin Salman after the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in exchange for increasing Saudi oil production to reduce oil prices. The price of oil has spiked recently due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression came as Mr. Bin Salman’s father, King Salman, decreed that Saudi Arabia would celebrate its founding on February 22.
The date commemorates the 18th-century attempt to establish a Saudi state by the monarch’s ancestor, Imam Muhammad bin Saud. The Ottomans thwarted the attempt.
The government also ordered restaurants and coffee shops to rename “Arabic coffee” as “Saudi coffee.
The government efforts are, at least in part, designed to cushion the impact of rapid social change that is sparking concern among some conservatives and those who fear they may be left behind.
“Whilst there is widespread support for the Vision, there are concerns about the pace of change, as well as the perception that to date there has been an over-emphasis on elite interests,” said Mark C. Thompson in a recently published study. Mr. Thompson is a Saudi-based social scientist who has long tracked the evolution of Saudi youth attitudes towards Mr. Bin Salman’s vision.
“The significance of Saudi Arabia’s two primary identity narratives, namely, Islam and family, have only changed incrementally regardless of post-2030 transformations,” Mr. Thompson said.
None of this suggests that Mr. Bin Salman’s reforms are unpopular. On the contrary, even if Mr. Thompson indicates that concerns about the pace of change are not confined to an older generation or an ultra-conservative minority or fringe.
Overall, Mr. Thompson concludes that the crown prince’s plan to free society from the raw edges of the kingdom’s austere, ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam has boosted youth morale, expectations, and ambitions.
It has also bolstered the kind of national pride that Messrs. Bin Salman and Al-Sheikh have sought to promote.
“The danger is that Vision-related transformations might be weak in the face of much stronger traditional values, and consequently, the rapid social changes could vanish just as quickly precisely because they have not become deep-rooted within Saudi communities,” Mr. Thompson warned.
Amid the rapid change and seemingly endless announcements of futuristic mega-projects, a young woman told Mr. Thompson that everything had “become a blur” to the extent that she no longer recognized the country in which she grew up. The woman said she struggled with preparing her children “for a world with little or no clarity.”
The social scientist cautioned that most foreign Saudi watchers based their analysis and conclusions on interactions with members of the Saudi elite who would have the most to lose if social change were to falter.
Mr. Thompson quoted a Western-educated Saudi consultant as saying that most Saudis “would not be affected greatly” if the entertainment sector failed.
The fact that Saudi elites are the greatest beneficiaries of Mr. Bin Laden’s reforms means that most Saudis, concerned primarily about jobs, cost of living, affordable housing, and healthcare, often only benefit at best partially. To benefit more fully, they would have to have what the elite has: wasta or clout and connections.
The risk for Mr. Bin Salman is that the reforms widen the kingdom’s already yawning income gap, cast further doubt on the integrity of the crown prince’s anti-corruption campaign, and undermine widespread support for his vision.
Small and medium-sized enterprises and their employees feel that they are often excluded from participation in Vision-related projects that favour large and well-known family enterprises. As a result, young Saudis with lesser family backgrounds and education end up as drivers when they migrate from the provinces to the cities.
In a rare outpouring of protest earlier this year, residents of districts recently razed to the ground to create space for a multi-billion dollar development in the Red Sea city of Jeddah vented their anger on social media.
The residents complained that they had not received adequate warning or compensation when their homes and neighbourhoods were demolished. They were further outraged at government attempts to demonise them as drug dealers, criminals, and prostitutes and to dismiss the whole area being redeveloped as a slum.
For now, Mr. Bin Salman has the winds in his sails. By and large, Saudis appear to have embraced his vision despite whatever concerns they may have. The question is whether crackdowns on freedom of expression and a refusal to engage with complaints publicly is what will ensure the crown prince’s momentum.
In conversation with Manasi Gupta about Hues of the Mind
Manasi Gupta is a social entrepreneur and an engineer by profession. At the age of nineteen, she founded Huesofthemind, a nonprofit organisation to provide mental health services which have impacted 50,000 beneficiaries with its initiatives. She is a mental health advocate and wants to make mental health resources more accessible, affordable, and available.
She often reiterates the importance of taking care of oneself and encourages mental wellbeing through her workshops, delivering 50+ talks worldwide at the University of Nairobi, Delhi University, and NIFT Mumbai, to name a few. She is also a published author of the book, Hues of You, which raised funds for mental health resources.
She has been conferred nationally for her team’s efforts by the former Health Secretary of India and interviewed by The Times of India. She will be representing India in the upcoming One Young World Summit and is one of the 28 Applicants to receive 100% scholarship from 50,000 applicants worldwide.
What has the overall impact of your work been like?
More than ten thousand beneficiaries have directly been impacted by our workshops, conferences, and events. These beneficiaries are of varying age groups, ranging from eight-year-olds to thirty-year-olds. These sharing spaces have been in different locations, ranging from India to the United States of America, Nepal, South Korea and more.
We raise awareness on our social media platforms, which have witnessed more than a hundred collaborations for content, campaigns, and live social media events. Our social media platforms on Instagram, Linkedin, and Twitter have a cumulative reach of an average of five thousand users virtually.
Other than that, our multiple initiatives have impacted more than ten thousand users and subscribers. Our newsletter HuesLetter has had nearly forty successful editions, reaching more than a thousand subscribers. Huesofthemind’s podcasts in Hindi and English have reached more than a thousand listeners. Our virtual repository that helps people connect with professional help has received an average of a thousand users per month since its inception in June.
Our team has also been interviewed by The Times of India, the National newspaper of India, and by AIESEC, the world’s largest youth-run organization, thereby inspiring thousands more.
Hence, we’ve nearly impacted close to fifty thousand beneficiaries worldwide.
What other projects do you plan to undertake in the near future?
Educating, engaging and empowering communities, especially the youth, is crucial. Access to affordable healthcare services is a right of every human being, and awareness is the primary step in receiving the right healthcare services. Non-judgemental sharing spaces, focused on expression, are crucial to mental well-being. My mission is to foster these spaces with the funding I receive in the program.
I have seen a dire lack of education when it comes to mental health, thereby contributing to the stigma around it. I also believe that technology can significantly elevate the depth and breadth of the impact one can have. HuesEd by Huesofthemind is an interactive interface that would help shed light on the various aspects of knowledge in the realm of psychology & mental health education. This interface would inspire our audiences to know more about common misconceptions and hardly known yet essential concepts that require more awareness, given their gravitas
What is your illustrated book all about?
We published our illustrated book, Hues of You in June 2021. Our team has worked relentlessly to create this wholesome coffee table book. The proceeds we receive go towards making therapy more and more accessible to everyone around us.
Sharing is cathartic
Carrying this vision forward, we, at Huesofthemind, crafted a book with research-backed articles, self-help resources, our journeys- in prose and poetry & so much more.
People have found our spaces ‘life changing’, which has motivated our team to empower many more lives. I firmly believe that we are glistening with the potential to brighten our lives and those of others.
Which all conferences have you attended so far? Any advice for people who want to attend more conferences?
ECOSOC Youth Forum
One Young World
For me, the key values that really shine in any individual & their respective work are,
Authenticity, passion & courage.
Any specific programs or fellowships you are planning to join in the near future?
Not at the moment
Anything else you would like to share?
Access to the correct information regarding healthcare services is a right of every human being. My vision is to make that come true. Awareness is the primary step in receiving the right healthcare services.
The presence of misinformation is a challenge that our present world faces, and access to educational resources from reliable sources can help combat that. I also truly believe that the inclusion of education in the curriculum with the help of a top-down approach involving changes in public policy can support this vision come true. I have seen a dire lack of education when it comes to mental health, thereby contributing to the staggering stigma around it. Education can assist an individual in being more aware, informed, and thereby help them make the right decisions.
Along with physical health, access to mental health resources and services should not be a luxury. I also believe that technology can significantly elevate the depth and breadth of the impact one can have. This idea involves the use of wearable devices to track vital information and ideas to improve the overall wellbeing of a person.
Ups And Downs of Women’s Property Rights
In the English speaking world during the first part of the 19th century, women were considered either too frivolous or even weak-minded to be entrusted with their inherited wealth, control of which transferred to the husbands upon marriage.
It wasn’t until the 1848 Married Women’s Property Act was passed by New York State that women got the right to keep their own wages and to own property in their own name. Some other states began to pass their own acts along the same lines and by 1900 all of them had done so.
Across the Atlantic in England, the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 allowed them to keep earned and inherited property. This was later superseded by the broader 1882 Act which also served as a model for British territories abroad.
Again, it might surprise people to learn that until the mid-1970s financial institutions like banks routinely denied married women in the U.S. loans or credit cards in their own name. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act, signed by Gerald Ford into law in 1974, finally put an end to this kind of discrimination.
Beware however, that women’s rights have had ups and downs throughout history. As an example, consider Ancient Egypt where women enjoyed a legal status of equality with men. They retained their property even after marriage, and property jointly acquired with husbands belonged one-third to the wife. They could dispense with their wealth as they wished.
An example is the will of Naunakht (Writings from Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson – Penguin Classics) drawn up in the third year of the reign of Ramses V. Thus it has been dated with precision to 1147 B.C. She had fourteen witnesses signifying the importance of a will and perhaps also to preclude any contesting of it.
Naunakht married twice, first a scribe and then a tomb workman named Khaemnun. No children from the first marriage but four boys and four girls from the second. Naunakht makes it quite clear she wants to dispossess three of her children and leave her property to the five who have looked after her in her old age. However, she cannot prevent the three she disinherits from inheriting their father’s property.
About a year after the will was made, the whole family had to appear before a court for a second legal hearing to confirm that they would respect the terms of the will.
In her declaration, she lists those to whom she has left her property and in one case additional gifts of a bronze washing bowl and ten sacks of emmer. She also lists the disinherited ones, noting that “they shall not share in the division of my one-third, but they shall share in the two-thirds of their father.”
Anyone going back on the agreement would be subject to a hundred blows and be deprived of the property. Contesting wills was clearly hazardous.
As for the rights of women, consider the millennia it has taken to get us in the West to where the Egyptians were with regard to women’s property rights.
A Glimpse of The Middle Class in Ancient Egypt and its Lesson
It is a tidy fact that history is written not of the common people and their circumstances but of the rulers, their families, their intrigues, their courtiers … and nobles and their intrigues; in short, the squables of those who rule us and the machinations in pursuit of even more power … also in consequence, wealth.
So an encounter with the life of a middle class minor official (“Writings from Ancient Egypt” by Toby Wilkinson, Penguin Classics) and his vicissitudes from the mundane to the important — as when he addresses his superiors — affords an eye opener if only to the extent that life goes on as much the same whether now or in Egypt around 1147 B.C. Three thousand years and human behavior remains human behavior.
Heqanakht, the official, was obliged to travel frequently in connection with his duties and he writes to Merisu, his steward, on matters like the proper cultivation of his land, rental agreements, quality of grain, and finally on matters connected with his household.
One can imagine the toilers of the Nile wetlands working incredibly hard to coax out a crop of which a portion was paid to the landowner as rent. Each step required exertion as feet sank into the wet mud. The practice of paying landowners a portion of the crop still prevails and in the US midwest it is commonly a third. On the other hand, if the soil is particularly rich as in Indiana, the tenant might be willing to pay more.
Our friend Heqanakht also has other concerns: his wife has complaints about being bullied by Senen, the new housemaid. If Heqanakht is hectoring in tone, irritable and bossy, often including terms like ‘Watch out’ or ‘Don’t ignore it’, he appears to have a tender side in his regard for his mother, Ipi, and his clear fondness for his son Sneferu, his ‘pride and joy.’
The extended family in his care is reminiscent of Asian families to this day, particularly on the Indian subcontinent, and the resident mother-in-law is still around even in the West if she hasn’t been shunted to an old folks home.
In another letter, Heqanakht writes to his immediate superior, the Overseer of Lower Egypt. The tone here is altogether different. He opens the missive with the words, ‘Your condition is life itself, a million times. May … all the gods act for you … sweeten your heart greatly with life and an old age’. He addresses him as ‘Your Honor — Life, Prosperity, Health’ and adds the very same well-wishing three words every time he refers to him in the letter.
To Merisu he says, ‘Greetings to my mother Ipi a thousand times, a million times.’ About his son Sneferu .. ‘Now didn’t I say that Sneferu, my pride and joy, a thousand times, a million times. Watch out for Anubis and Sneferu. You live by them and die by them.’
‘Have that housemaid, Senen, thrown out of any house — see to it — on whatever day Subathor (the messenger) reaches you … act: You are the one who lets her do bad things to my wife. Look, how have I made it distressful for you? What did she do against you to make you hate her?’
‘And have a letter brought explaining what is collected from those debts of Perhaa. See to it. Don’t ignore it.’
Business must go on and life goes on with its attendant problems. Have things changed much?
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