Subverting Saudi Arabia through song

It must have been rather mortifying for the Saudi women who risked arrest last weekend by asserting their right to drive – only to see their efforts thoroughly upstaged by men, even if the men involved were supporters of their campaign. 

By this morning, the YouTube video song, No Woman, No Drive, had been viewed 7,778,543 times. Its gentle ridicule of old-fashioned patriarchal attitudes has certainly struck a chord and it may eventually do more to advance the cause of women's driving than most of the previous protests.

Despite all the attention it has attracted, the video itself has not been discussed in much detail, though. This is a pity because  (in my opinion, at least) there are plenty of interesting things to be said about it. So, at the risk of over-analysing four minutes and fifteen seconds of protest song, here goes.

First, it's performed in traditional Saudi dress. Would it have been quite so effective if the singers – Hisham Fageeh and Fahad Albutairi – had been wearing jeans and T-shirts? Probably not. The incongruity of the respectable/conservative attire, coupled with attempts at Jamaican accents adds to the irony.

The song also alludes to Saudi clerics' disapproval of music. Casual listeners might not notice, but it's entirely a capella – without musical instruments. In Wahhabi religious terms this makes it halal – permissible. All the sounds come from human voices, plus some percussion from the clapping of hands, the slapping of chests and, more unusually and amusingly, the scratching of beards.

Whether intentionally or not, this subverts religious objections to music and highlights their pointlessness by showing that suitably musical effects can be achieved in other ways.

The video also manages to include an image of female genitals but, again, this is difficult to object to on "morality" grounds since it's a medical diagram – an allusion to the Saudi cleric who recently claimed that driving can damage a woman's ovaries and lead to the birth of children with "clinical problems".

The song's title and lyrics, of course, are a play on Bob Marley's famous song, No Woman, No Cry – and not for the first time. In 2010 there was also a campaign to bar Saudi Arabia from the Olympics (for discriminating against women athletes) which used the slogan "No Woman, No Play".

But is there more to the choice of a Bob Marley song than a convenient play on words? What does Marley signify for Arabs, and Saudis in particular?

Introducing the song, Fageeh doesn't mention him by name. He simply says: "I heard this song by this Jamaican guy that caught my attention."

While Saudi clerics might not know who he was talking about, there are plenty of Arabs who would. Marley's songs about oppression, poverty and injustice certainly resonate in the Middle East and another of them – Get Up, Stand Up – was sung during some of the early Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt.

Marley's Jamaican nationality also helps to make him acceptable. As one of a fairly small number of "non-western" singers with a worldwide following, he's not easily portrayed as a product of cultural imperialism.

On the other hand, Marley wasn't a Muslim and Rastafarianism doesn't even count as one of the "heavenly" religions, so presumably Bob now gets a light for his spliffs from the fires of Hell. Were he still alive, his fondness for the ganja would also have got him into serious trouble in Saudi Arabia.

In an intriguing side-note, The Gleaner (a Jamaican newspaper), points out that in 1974 No Woman, No Cry was a minor breakthrough for female musicians. The Natty Dread album, which featured the song, was the first of Marley's albums to include harmonies sung by women. Almost 40 years later, that's still apparently a step too far for the Saudi version which uses male-only voices.

The credits at the end of the YouTube video say it was written and produced by Hisham Fageeh, Fahad Albutairi and Alaa Wardi. Many of the news reports mention Fageeh, the 26-year-old activist/comedian who was mainly responsible for it, and some mention his co-performer, Albutairi, too. 

Less has been said about the third man, Wardi, but look him up and – horror of horrors – he turns out to be Iranian. So again, whether intentionally or not, here is another subversive touch. The video is an example of Saudi-Iranian cooperation at a time when the Saudi regime is hyping up supposed threats from Iran for its own political purposes.

Another interesting observation comes from Robert Lacey, author of Inside the Kingdom, a modern history of Saudi Arabia. Lacey was struck by Fageeh's remark introducing the video when he said he got his inspiration for it "while studying in the US" (he's a graduate of Columbia University).

Lacey links this to the King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Program – a scheme which has aroused much hostility among Saudi Arabia's more reactionary elements. Lacey, however, views the foreign scholarships as a bit of deliberate subversion by the king, intended to bring about social change:

"No Woman, No Drive provides the perfect explanation of why King Abdullah is currently paying for 150,000 young Saudis to study in the United States (with 15,000 in Britain and still more young Saudi men and women in Europe, Australia, Russia and China) - and why the kingdom's clerics and conservatives hate the programme so bitterly.

"A regime that undermines some of its country's most entrenched prejudices so brilliantly can't be all bad."

Saud Kabli, a political scientist and columnist for al-Watan newspaper, agrees with Lacey and likens the scholarship programme to Muhammed Ali Paça's educational missions to Europe in the 1820s "which helped the buildup of modern Egypt and triggered, later on, the Arab Renaissance". 

"Anyone who visits Saudi Arabia today and engages deeply with the youth will see beyond doubt that young men and women like Hisham Faqeeh are part of a much wider trend whereby Saudi youth are becoming more assertive, more open to the world and more receptive to global ideals.

"The youth of Saudi Arabia are a hidden force of change that will definitely change the society in the coming years, and it seems that the government realises this and even capitalises on it, probably on the hope that change will come eventually from within the society rather than forcefully from the top."

Kabli adds:

"The issue of women driving is only an another round of [the] fight picked up by the religious establishment in hope to preserve their old-entrenched status in the system and the spoils it provides. In my opinion, they will eventually lose this fight and the momentum of the Saudi youth will prevail at the end, not just when it comes to the issue of women driving but many other social issues still in the pipeline."   

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 31 October 2013  

Note: Lacey and Kabli originally posted their comments in a private discussion forum. They are quoted here with the writers' permission.