On November 8, 2019, Saudi Arabia's general department of counter-extremism, which is part of the State Security Presidency (a body comprising all the kingdom's counterterrorism and domestic intelligence services), tweeted an animated video educating the public about extremist ideas and behaviors. The video listed feminism, along with homosexuality, Westernization and promiscuity, as a form of unacceptable extremism. Paradoxically, the general department of counter-extremism states on its Twitter page that it acts "to promote the middle path, moderation and tolerance." A Saudi legal expert told the government daily Al-Watan that designating feminism as a form of extremism meant that feminist activists could be prosecuted and sentenced to a wide range of punishments, from a fine to imprisonment and even flogging.
The video was widely distributed on Twitter, and many Saudis expressed support for its message, especially for the description of feminism as a form of extremism. Conversely, several Saudi Shura Council members, female media figures and intellectuals active in the field of women's rights tweeted against the video, and one even wrote that presenting feminism as an offense meant "tarring all women as criminals." Criticism against the description of feminism as extremism was also expressed in an opinion piece published in Al-Watan by Shura Council member 'Issa Al-Ghaith.
The growing criticism of the video, and concern that the criticism would expand beyond the borders of the kingdom, and to Western countries, prompted the Saudi authorities to remove the video several days later and to distance themselves from it. In a statement it issued on November 12, the State Security Presidency renounced the video and denied any responsibility for it, saying that it "contained many mistakes in its definition of extremism" and that those responsible for creating and disseminating it had acted on their own, without obtaining approval for the video's content. The statement clarified that an investigation would be conducted and that the procedures for handling the new media would be overhauled, so that such incidents would not recur. It also stressed that the Al-Watan report that claimed that feminists could be prosecuted and face severe punishments was "completely unfounded" and that measures would be taken against the daily for publishing it.
However, despite the authorities' renouncement of the video, it should be mentioned that in the recent years, alongside measures lifting some limitations on women, the Saudi regime has acted to constrain political activism by women and has detained many women's rights activists. Especially noticeable was a wave of arrests in May-June 2018 of prominent activists calling for women's equality, including for an end to the guardianship system and limitations on women's driving – a wave that came only weeks before the law permitting women to drive came into force. The detained activists were accused of forming ties with "foreign embassies" and acting against the kingdom.
Moreover, in the last year a hostile and inciting discourse has prevailed in the Saudi media against feminism and against Saudi feminist activists inside and outside the kingdom, which presented them as enemies and foreign agents. The characterization of feminism as extremism by an official Saudi security apparatus is yet another measure that restricts the already limited freedom of women's rights and human rights activists in Saudi Arabia.
This report presents details on the video and some of the reactions to it, and reviews the incitement against feminism and feminists that has recently prevailed in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi State Security Presidency Lists Feminism, Homosexuality, Westernization, Promiscuity As Forms Of Extremism
As stated, the video that lists feminism as a form of extremism was posted November 8, 2019 on the Twitter page of the general department of counter-extremism, which is part of Saudi Arabia's State Security Presidency. The narrator in the video defines extremism as "an attempt to impose certain ideas or behaviors [on others], and rigidity regarding certain issues." Images appearing on the screen list feminism as one of the forms of extremism, along with homosexuality, Westernization, promiscuity, atheism, heresy, terror, takfir (accusing others of heresy), anarchism and other terms. The video ends by declaring that "it is important that everyone understand the term 'extremism' and take the middle path, [the path of] moderation... while placing the interests of the homeland above everything else."
Screenshot from the video: various forms of extremism
Screenshot from the video: various forms of extremism
The video was posted on the Twitter page with the following text: "Extremism, in all its forms, is a social scourge that everyone must warn and be warned against. Some people are fanatical about certain issues, and others renounce the religious commandments and social norms. A third group is excessively loyal to some element, at the expense of the religion and the homeland. All these forms [of behavior] count as unacceptable extremism, which we all combat together.
The video on the Twitter page of the counter-extremism department, which belongs to the State Security Presidency (Twitter.com/ce_pss, November 8, 2019)
Report In Saudi Al-Watan Daily: Expressing Feminist Ideas Is An Offense Punishable By Imprisonment
The Saudi daily Al-Watan reported on the inclusion of feminism among the "extremist" ideologies, and quoted a legal expert who explained the meaning of this measure. The expert clarified that whoever expresses feminist ideas is committing an offense and may be charged by the prosecutor general. He added that the sentence would be up to the judge and could be very severe, since the act is defined as an offense by a body in charge of state security. Among the possible punishments he listed a fine, imprisonment and even flogging, and explained that, if the feminist ideas are expressed on the internet, the judge might add another charge to the indictment, such as incitement or agitating public opinion.
Saudi Media Incites Against Feminism And Feminists
The designation of feminism as a form of extremism by a Saudi security apparatus comes against the backdrop of a general tendency in the last few years to restrict the freedom of women's rights activists in the kingdom. As stated, this hostility towards feminism was also evident in the Saudi mainstream and social media. In the recent year, the media has directed incitement and invective at Saudi feminist activists inside and outside the country, and against any woman publically complaining about women's status there, presenting them as foreign agents and enemies who "have never really been interested in obtaining rights for women, but rather in inciting and recruiting [Saudi women] against the state and society." Since May 2019 especially, the media has been inciting against feminism and against feminist activists, accusing them of acting to destabilize the state, serving its enemies, and even describing them as mentally unstable women who promote ideas that are dangerous for the state and society, just like ISIS.
For example, speaking on the popular show Al-Liwan on Rotana TV, aired on May 8, 2019, during Ramadan, Shura Council member Kawthar Al-Arbash said that "the true goal [of the feminist movement] is political dissent and undermining the regime. These movements are like ISIS and like those who abandon the true Islam." Some two weeks later, Al-Arbash wrote a column in the Al-Jazirah daily titled "Feminism – A Murderous Cancer," in which she attacked "Twitter accounts that purport to demand rights for women," stating: "Feminism is directed from outside [the country], and these accounts are fake and serve [foreign elements]. Are we waiting for our daughters to be swayed by them? Are we waiting for this dubious movement to cause disastrous losses before we seriously confront it?... This movement encourages our daughters to take drugs, swear, [practice] perversion, and to disdain and curse religion and tradition. Today we say that these are foreign accounts, [but unless we act], in a few years we will find them inside our homes..."
Another example is an article published on July 1, 2019 by 'Abdallah Al-Mazhar, a columnist for the Makkah daily, in which he claimed that the feminist movement opposes the existence of two genders, is heretical, promotes homosexuality, and is against the family institution and childbearing. "We can say without reservation," he wrote, "that the feminist movement encompasses every abomination, and can be described, again without reservation, as the lowest manifestation of human reason." In other columns he wrote in a similar vein, saying for instance that "feminist men and women are worse than the sons of the devil."
Supporters Of The Video: Feminism Is An Extremist Ideology; Feminists Incite Girls To Rebel Against Their Families
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The video of the counter-extremism department was supported by some in the Saudi press and on Twitter. An editorial published by the government daily Al-Riyadh several days after the posting of the video lavished praise on this department and its efforts to eradicate extremist discourse. However, the editorial focused on the department's struggle against ISIS and other terror organizations, and did not mention the aspects of the video that had sparked the criticism (namely the claims about feminism, homosexuality, Westernization and the like).
The Al-Riyadh editorial
Many Saudi Twitter users likewise expressed support for the messages conveyed by the video, especially for the inclusion of feminism among the extremist ideologies and behaviors. The video was retweeted by other official Saudi bodies, such as the Prince Khalid Al-Faisal Institute for Moderation, and by prominent Saudi women who have spoken against feminism in the past, such as Shura Council Kawthar Al-Arbash and Halima Muzaffar, a columnist for the Al-Madina daily. Many tweeted under hashtags such as "extremist feminism" and "feminism is an extremist ideology."
Prince Khalid Al-Faisal Institute for Moderation retweets the video
Saudi legal expert 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Mutairi responded to the video by tweeting photos of several Saudi women's rights activists, with the comment: "We thank the general department for counter-extremism for this clip, which attempts to explain [the meaning of] extremism and extremist organizations, and especially to define feminism as a form of extremism. It is time to stop the organization of feminists who incite the daughters of the homeland to rebel against their families and to flee from their homeland."
'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Mutairi's tweet
Women Opposed To The Video: Feminism Is Social Justice; Describing It As An Offense Tars All Women As Criminals
Alongside the expressions of support, the video also sparked many condemnations on social media, on the accounts of Saudi intellectuals and of Saudi women's rights activists inside and outside the kingdom. Prominent in this context was an exchange on Twitter among Saudi businesswomen and media figures, which followed a tweet by Shura Council member Eqbal Darandari. The exchange revealed considerable anger about the video, alongside bewilderment and uncertainty as to how to continue the struggle for women's rights.
In a November 9, 2019 tweet, Darandari criticized the counter-extremism department and the decision to define feminism as extremism, writing, "It is best to learn terms from experts before using and circulating them. 'Feminism' is social justice. If some extremists use it as a cover for [their true activity], this doesn't justify making generalizations about everyone [and accusing them] of extremism…
Darandari's tweet elicited numerous responses, many of them from women supporting her claims. For example, Areej Al-Jahani, a columnist for the 'Okaz daily who writes about women's rights, tweeted, "I hope the [understanding of] the term [feminism] will be corrected and that they will revert [to consulting] serious sources, and not the heresies of Google! Thank you [Darandari] for your never-ending professional courage."
Nadia Al-Shahrani, a columnist with the Al-Watan daily, tweeted, "Dr. Eqbal [Darandari], I agree with you completely, but it is very important to choose one's battles. This is especially [true for] people like you..., who are spearheading the change and the legislation. What is the top priority today, improving the [understanding] of the term [feminism], or improving the situation of women instead of battling over terminology? I personally advocate [focusing on improving the situation of] women." This comment elicited a response from leading businesswoman and media figure Mona Al-Sulayman, who tweeted, "The term is important today, because [feminist] activity is part of a global human movement, even though its demands are different [in different places]. Designating the term [feminism] as an offense tars all women as criminals, and all their demands, even those of the Islamic feminists."
The Twitter debate about the video (Twitter.com/abusulayman, November 10, 2019)
Shura Council Member: Just As It Is Forbidden To Distort The Concept Of Islam, It Is Forbidden To Distort The Concept Of Feminism
In his column in Al-Watan, Shura Council member 'Issa Al-Ghaith likewise criticized the video's message about feminism, arguing that feminism must not be condemned in such a sweeping manner. He wrote, "If [feminism] means a demand [to respect] women's right to social justice in accordance with the shari'a, the law, and the values of society, including its positive customs and traditions, then it is a desirable and praiseworthy term, and is not considered extremism. However, if the opposite [is the case], and feminism means turning against the [Islamic] sources, rebelling against values and justifying the betrayal of the nation, then it is contemptible and not desirable, and [should indeed be] considered extremism, [both] the theory and its practice.
"One must not condemn [feminism] in a sweeping manner… for we are all in favor of feminism if it supports the rights of women as anchored in shari'a, and we are all against it if opposes our religious and social values. We have already demanded the legitimate rights [of women to practice] law, drive, and travel [without a male guardian], as well as dozens of other rights. At the time this triggered illegitimate opposition from 'the extremists,' but [the women] won and it was proved that they are entitled to these rights. This does not mean, however, that it is permissible to demand [rights] to which they are not entitled. For we must not distort the term 'feminism' just because of [some] 'extremist' [feminists] who make demands that contravene [our] values, just as it is forbidden to distort 'Islam' because of [some] terrorist 'extremists' who make a habit of accusing others of heresy and adultery."
* B. Shanee is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), November 13, 2019.
 Twitter.com/ce_pss, November 8, 2019.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 11, 2019.
 Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), July 13, 2019; see also Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), August 5, 2019.
 Alkhaleejonline.net, May 9, 2019.
 Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), May 20, 2019.
 Makkah (Saudi Arabia), July 1, 2019.
 Makkah (Saudi Arabia), July 11, 2019.
 Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 11, 2019.
 Twitter.com/PKhalidlM, November 8, 2019.
 Twitter.com/ASmutiry, November 8, 2018.
 Darandari is apparently referring to the abovementioned claim, frequently heard in Saudi Arabia, that feminists are actually foreign agents acting against the state and society.
 Twitter.com/Eqbal_Darandari, November 9, 2019.
 Twitter.com/areejaljahani, November 9, 2019.
 Twitter.com/abdullah_nadia, November 10, 2019.
 Twitter.com/abusulayman, November 10, 2019.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 12, 2019.