Death of a Princess was a docudrama that was released in 1980, two years after the execution of Saudi Princess Misha’al for adultery. You can watch the movie on youtube where it has been broken into parts.
Up until the year the film was released, most people living in Saudi Arabia didn’t know the details of what had occurred, even though the execution was carried out in public. The documentary filmmaker, Anthony Thomas, was only able to ferret out the truth by speaking to a few people in Saudi Arabia who knew the royal family personally. There were many strange details about the execution that didn’t make sense. For one thing, judicial executions usually happen in a particular square. There’s a formality about it. But in this case, the execution of the princess and her boyfriend happened in a parking lot that had been hastily prepared with a pile of sand.
Thomas finally did get to the bottom of this story and when the movie was released, it caused quite a stir in Saudi Arabia where copies of it had to be smuggled in. People identified with this girl who chose to live a free life for a few days, something most Saudis only dream about. In 2005, the PBS program Frontline looked back at that movie and the controversy surrounding it. As with most things Frontline does, there is a thorough cache of supplementary material including interviews with journalists, cultural experts and activists.
The interview with Ali Al-Ahmed is particularly enlightening. Remember that this interview happened in 2005, back in the Bush era when Condoleeza Rice was Secretary of State. But what he says about how the Saudis conspire with conservative religious fanatics to keep the public’s eye away from what is really going on in their country is very relevant today here in America. We have learned from the Saudis. Here is a piece of the interview:
You wrote that, in fact, women to some extent are the line in the sand between modernization or remaining a medieval kingdom.
It’s true. You cannot really go forward and progress as a society when 50 percent of your population are oppressed. And it is the tipping point. This is the line you have to cross. It’s the frontier we have to conquer in order to tell ourselves we are walking straight.
This is, to me, like a man walking with half his body paralyzed. This is our society, a paralyzed society, because half of it is not moving, and the other half is trying to move. But we are dragged back by [the fact that] half the society is paralyzed, and this is not going to change internally. External help must be offered, especially from the United States.
Is the United States playing that role?
The U.S. has one thing in its mind, which is [its] interest. And I think it has been harmful for the U.S. There is no harm that the United States can do to itself by encouraging — not forcing, encouraging — one of its closest allies to allow women their freedom. It’s not against Saudi culture or society to have women attain these freedoms that I talked about. It is against the government’s policy, yes, but it’s not against the culture or the religion of that society.
And the U.S. has not been vocal. And this is the last country in the world besides Kuwait where women cannot vote. This is the last country in the world where women cannot drive and cannot attain these freedoms that I spoke about. And it is very easily done if this is a priority. I asked a U.S. official recently about it: “Have you ever had a program to encourage the Saudi government to allow women more freedom or to improve their status?” And the answer was, “No.”
“It was not important to us.” And I said that “Well, I think I’ve started to rethink my appreciation of a democratic system.” If a democratic government [or] society does not think it’s important to have its own values protected and promoted to its own friends, then there is something wrong with these values.
The role of women in Saudi Arabia is in some ways a concession to the religious conservatives who are so important in propping up the royal family, correct?
The religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia consider women one of their most important issues. They are obsessively concerned with women. The royal family uses these extremists to suppress society and to preoccupy them with fictitious issues, from “How long is your beard?” [to] “Can I say ‘bye-bye’?” I’m not kidding — “Can I say ‘bye-bye’? Is it OK to say ‘bye-bye’ instead of ‘salaam’? Is my robe longer or shorter?”
So they figure out that if you make women an issue, then you have 50 percent [of] society paralyzed and part of the other half concerned, obsessed about suppressing the 50 percent. … The conservatives of Saudi Arabia feel the need to control society and guide it, and they use women as a means to control that society. And that pleases the royals, who would like a society that’s obsessed with long beards and short robes rather than a society focused on equal rights, democracy, human rights and education and so on.
Has 9/11 changed that?
Absolutely it did. Society has now realized it has been fooled all along, and the religious conservatives are nothing but a tool in the hands of the royal family to suppress society. At the end of the day, the same people who issued fatwas against elections turned 180 degrees and said, “Oh, elections are good.” Two years before they said, “Elections are evil; they are imitations of the infidels.” The Saudi government decided to have limited elections; then suddenly it became a good thing. They figured out the game, and I think more people are figuring out the game, and the religious conservatives very soon will have very little influence in the country.
So what’s the game?
The game is, “We are doing this to protect our religion, to protect you.” … They don’t think democracy means you will participate. They equate democracy with sexual promiscuity, with rapes. That’s why, as long as society is obsessed with women and the fact that they have to be covered and suppressed, then we won’t have a democratic society, a society that’s looking for participation in government.
It puts the recently renewed battle over contraceptives in a whole new light, doesn’t it? And now we have people fighting in state legislatures over whether it is proper to say the word VAGINA in public. The hits and obsessive battles over trivialities are coming fast and furiously now. I don’t think we will start making women wear veils but in a very short period of time, the religious conservatives have successfully taken women back to the 60’s. It’s hard to believe that my daughters will have *less* freedom than I did and that we are reintroducing shame and restrictions. But this has happened in countries like Iran and Afghanistan where the ruling mullahs rejected modernity for women after a period of relaxation of strict tribal rules when bare faces and miniskirts flourished.
It’s seems futile to point out to American religious conservatives that they are being used to suppress democracy in this country but that appears to be what is happening. I see the mission of the Catholic bishops and the “religious freedom” meme in a whole new light. I also see *both* parties conspiring to distract the public with attacks on women. None of this is really that surprising. It’s just strange to see it distilled as succinctly as Al-Ahmed has done.
Prove me wrong, Democrats. Why don’t you come right out and say what’s going on? Let’s hear Obama get up and make a truly significant, meaningful, emotional “Reverend Wright-esque” speech in defense of American women. Let’s see him lay out to the American public what the game is, pledge to stop playing it and challenge the other side to stop too.
Remember, national women’s groups are meeting in Baltimore at the end of June. I challenge them to demand that both parties stop using women as a distraction and route to suppress democracy in this country. They should refrain from endorsing ANY candidate for president until they get a firm committment from both parties to stop using women and to tell the religious nutcases and Catholic bishops to back the fuck off.
This is not a game and we’re not going to play it.