Skip to main content
mona eltahawy

When I lived in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, public executions would be announced at the very end of state media's newscasts. The anchor would read a statement from the Interior Ministry that included a verse from the Koran used to justify capital punishment along with the name of the person executed and the crime they supposedly committed.

That was it. Just a dry and to-the-point statement that ended the news. Almost an afterthought, an "Oh by the way, we chopped someone's head off in a public square today." Sometimes it would be amputations. Horrors delivered in the terse drip-drop of a theocratic tyranny, no questions asked, no shame shown for the barbarism and no challenging what happened because unless you were there at the public square where a human head was severed, you had to take their word for it.

On Jan. 12, some 10 days before King Abdullah died, four police officers dragged Laila Bint Abdul Muttalib Basim, a Burmese woman who resided in Saudi Arabia, through a street in Islam's holy city of Mecca and held her down until an executioner took aim at her neck, taking three strikes to behead her.

She was convicted of the sexual abuse and murder of her seven-year-old step-daughter. She screamed "I did not kill. I did not kill" as the security officers tried to pin her down.

We know all of that because a man secretly filmed the execution and the video was distributed by human rights activists and posted on YouTube. Although the video has been removed by YouTube as part of its policy on "shocking and disgusting content," the Saudi authorities tellingly arrested the man who shot the video. An Interior Ministry spokesman said such matters fell under the country's law against cybercrimes.

He might as well have said they arrested the man because he was the latest reminder that social media have unclasped the Saudi regime's stranglehold over the narrative that they enjoyed for years. That stranglehold allowed the regime to inhabit a moral black hole despite its outrageous human rights record by claiming an "exceptionalism:" We want to reform, the royals would claim, but the people are not ready so don't push us.

Social media, especially, have given the lie to that claim by giving alternative and opposing voices the ability to leapfrog right over that exceptionalism nonsense and to say "We are here; we are fighting to be free – hear us." On social media, Saudi men and women – who live in one of the most Internet-connected nations in the world – are able to connect in ways often impossible in a kingdom that enforces a strict gender segregation. And for women, especially, who encounter what can only be described as a gender apartheid that leaves them dependent on a male guardian's permission to do the most basic of things, social media have helped them give the lie that Saudi women embrace their oppression.

From veteran feminist and activist Wajeha al-Huwaider's 2008 YouTube driving video in defiance of the ban against women's driving, to Manal al-Sharif's own driving video in 2011, for which she was jailed for nine days, to the driving videos of the past couple of years by other Saudi women, social media have continued to document women's resistance. Several of those activists also openly call for the end of the guardianship system that is one of the mainstays of gender apartheid.

How frightening is a woman armed with driver's licence and social media to support her? Ask Loujain al-Hathloul, 25, and Maysa al-Amoudi, 33, who have been detained for more than 50 days and are to be thought first female drivers to be referred to specialized court in Riyadh that handles "terrorism" cases.

We haven't seen a revolution in Saudi Arabia in the style of the uprisings that began in Tunisia in 2010. But never doubt that the uprisings have influenced Saudis who followed them on satellite television and online, from the activist I mention above to ordinary Saudis who must be wondering why their recently departed king threw billions at a military-backed ruler such as Egypt's Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi like an antiseptic meant to both sanitize Egypt out of revolution and keep Saudi Arabia safely immune.

But as we mark the fourth anniversary of Egypt's Jan. 25, 2011, revolution, know that it began a process of unravelling that finds an echo in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. It is an unravelling of the kind of tyranny that arrogantly never imagined it would be challenged. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it was an arrogance that sat on one of the world's largest oil reserves and allowed it to use the billions it spent on buying the West's weapons in return for that same West's blindness to tyranny.

Incredibly brave Saudi men and women are risking their freedom and their lives to continue to unravel that tyranny. The more we hear – and watch them – the less likely will western officials be able to call a dead tyrant a "reformer king" as they did with Abdullah, and will be forced instead to call him as he was: the king of counter-revolution.

Mona Eltahawy is the author of the forthcoming book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.

Interact with The Globe