Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (M.B.S.) is allowing Saudi women new liberties in a gesture that, according to the Western paradigm of innate human rights and gender equality, was long overdue. As of Aug. 2, Saudi women may now hold passports, travel solely and freely, request family documents, register divorces and marriages and will have equal protection in the workplace – all basic Western rights that were formerly barred to female citizens of the Sunni Muslim monarchy. Sadly, in light of Saudi Arabia’s history regarding women, the longevity of the new liberties is highly suspect.
In the meantime, however, Saudi women, global activists and all who love progress are rejoicing. Journalists, as usual, are curious and slightly mistrustful: On the Aug. 6 edition of the National Public Radio program “The Takeaway,” host Tanzina Vega asked gender, human rights and Middle East reporter Sarah Aziza, “How much of this is about optics and how much of this is actually toward gender equality?”
It struck me as a silly question. Rights are rights, aren’t they? As women begin to gain the same liberties as men, is that not tending toward gender equality? But I then recalled a quote by theologian and literary scholar C. S. Lewis: “I am not angry, except perhaps for a moment before I come to my senses, with a man who trips me up by accident; I am angry with a man who tries to trip me up even if he does not succeed.” In other words, one must always distinguish between action and intention.
Consider the following example: An individual with celiac disease moves into the apartment next door, and you, unaware of their celiac, bake them bread as a house-warming gift. You give it to the new neighbor. They, of course, cannot eat it. Is either the act or the intent offensive? Of course not – your act was generous, your intention entirely charitable. Your intention, as is proper, decides the reception and interpretation of the act.
Bread and human rights do not compare well but the illustration holds. M.B.S.’ action, giving women new rights, is a good action. His intentions, however, may not be so laudable.
Answering Vega’s question Aziza said, “[MBS] tends to only like to issue reforms on his timeline and in his terms and always likes to posture them as a gift unilaterally given from above.”
In other words, his presupposition that men are essentially superior to women profoundly shapes and toxically biases his intentions. His presupposition also prevents women from gaining equality. Saudi women will never have gender equality or freedom if their rights and liberties are viewed as endowed by men. In such a paradigm, even if all genders have equal rights, women will not be equal to men: For you aren’t equal if someone is suffering for you to have equality. America’s era of “separate but equal” constitutes a similar situation.
This brings us to the distinctions between rights, liberty and freedom. Freedom is a positive state: The ability to do as one wishes. Liberty is a negative or granted state: The ability to do as one wishes because one is not hindered by an authority. Rights are specific liberties or freedoms bestowed by an authority. When the Declaration of Independence refers to “unalienable rights,” it means specific freedoms because they are innate. When the Constitution refers to “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” it means a specific liberty because it is bestowed by authority.
M.B.S. just gave Saudi women rights – liberties. He may continue doing so until men and women have equal rights. But until Saudi women are not given but recognized as already having the same freedom as men, Saudi Arabia cannot achieve gender equality.