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The media and Western leaders are talking a lot about the treatment of the women in Afghanistan [1, 2, 3] and the country's move towards the Sharia law [4]. They are described as issues raising serious concerns.

However there is no such concern when it comes to Saudi Arabia. Actually the move made by the Taliban is nothing other than an imitation of what is already in place there. Women, when the country was founded (between 1920-1930), had no rights [5] and changes, like access to education, happened very slowly. Only recently, after long protests, they managed to get the permission to drive cars [6].

Modern Islamic fundamentalism was formalised by scholars paid by the Saudi Royals who brought to prominence fringe sects [7] while they were already in business with American and British companies. The application of the Sharia law in Saudi Arabia has been funded with oil money, and it was never a source of concern.

However in several other contexts the threat to apply the Sharia is presented with a lot more concern. Why such difference?

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    @FluidCode in the future please format links properly to make your text easier to read :) Sep 16 at 14:24
  • "However there is no such concern when it comes to Saudi Arabia" - this is completely false and inaccurate. I've been reading about these very concerns, on a regular basis, for over 30 years and running. -1 for a straw man proposition and for asking a "why" question about an inaccurately described situation. Oct 19 at 22:18

10 Answers 10

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It's a little disingenuous to say they're not concerned about it, as much as it is to use 'the media' to describe a highly textured and diverse industrial sector.

That said, the status of women in Saudi Arabia is well documented, frequently discussed, and that history in addition to the fact that Saudi Arabia is a foreign policy ally of the United States (and in many ways the U.S.'s foot-in-the-door to Middle East politics and international relations) makes running headlines about Saudi Arabia less of a draw for readers.

Because of the recent drama in Afghanistan, and the links to the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban is a good topic to drive sales of papers. The U.S. public is very interested in/afraid of the Taliban and fear is a good driver of newspaper sales (including virtual news media)

So for the general public, stories that can feature the Taliban and affirm reader's sense of superiority are likely to sell very well. Comparatively, Saudi Arabia's relationship with the U.S. makes the emotional response to the poor state of Women's Rights in that country more complex and complexity doesn't sell as consistently. (Media that markets itself to niche audiences have more coverage of these issues, though.)

It's important to remember that "The Media" doesn't care or not care about things. They simply produce a product and market that product to maximize sales.

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    @FluidCode Plenty of people "notice" it; but that's different from reporting it as part of a current news event. Afghanistan's treatment of women is currently getting sharply worse; Saudi Arabia's treatment of women has not recently changed significantly.
    – Sneftel
    Sep 16 at 14:35
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    @FluidCode I believe it does. First off, plenty of people (yourself included) notice this. It is a matter of constant discussion in policy, international relations, and women's rights circles. But if you're asking why sales behave in this way, that's probably a question for Psychology SE rather than here. Sep 16 at 14:36
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    It's important to remember that "The Media" doesn't care or not care about things. They simply produce a product and market that product to maximize sales. That's a very cynical view that describes tabloids and "social media" much better than serious newspapers, for example. Journalists and editors actually care a lot about their work and the issues they cover, or else they would have become quantitative financial analysts or whatever it is people think they can make money fast(tm) with these days.
    – henning
    Sep 17 at 12:30
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    The funny thing is: The fact that Saudi Arabia is a US ally should make human rights violations, including women's, more newsworthy, shouldn't it? Why are we teaming up with known criminals? I mean literally nobody is surprised about human rights violations by Taliban; that's such a non-issue. Sep 17 at 16:38
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica In the same way that we should expect society to find excesses in police violence particularly shocking/unacceptable. In both cases what ends up happening is a subconscious reduction of the perceived credibility of those critics. Very easy to accept someone saying a stranger is problematic than to hear that of your own friend. On philosophical principle, you're right though. Sep 17 at 19:01
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This question is starting out from a false assumption, that the media does not regularly cover, mostly in a negative fashion, events in Saudi Arabia concerning both sharia and its treatment of women.

Those of us who follow international news closely have all read of articles about the subject, ranging from driving restrictions, to chaperone enforcement , to passport issuance and travel conditions (male relative has to approve), to capital executions (beheading by sword, no less).

What is true is that, right now, the media is covering Taliban activity more than Saudi Arabia.

  • The Taliban takeover is fresh and hot news. Covering Saudi Arabia just means repeating the same things, unless something new starts happening. It is normal, not nefarious, that the media focuses more on current, new, events. Rather than past events, which they have covered.

  • Talibans are an avowed US/Western enemy. While Saudi is an avowed US/Western ally. More on that later

  • Saudi Arabia has a, deeply flawed, legal system. But it at least pretends to have one at least and enforce rules. Taliban, right now and in the 1990s had more of what we could call summary justice.

  • Saudi has kept itself pretty distant from Taliban win, probably not wanting to trigger another round of Western electorate disapproval. I don't think it figured in the list "nations now opening relations with Taliban" asked about in a recent question. (Note that, historically, Saudi has had a lot to do with the mess, since they were 1-1 matching US funds to support Mujahideen in the 80s and were part-controlling, with Pakistant the spigot on who would get the funds. Being Wahhabi-approved was at least as important as battlefield competence). So if Pakistan has been a direct sponsor of the Taliban, Saudi has been indirect, at least historically.

  • Recently Saudi has, to a limited extent, granted some more freedoms to women. Whether that is a sincere move by MBS, whether it is to support their intent to make Saudi's economy less oil dependent by attracting foreign investment, whether it is to muzzle the power of the religious establishment, or whether to deflect attention from the prince's unfortunate tendency to order journalists offering critical coverage of Saudi dismembered in their embassies is up for debate.

Doubtless, Saudi Arabia's rather toxic role in world affairs and malign Wahhabi influence on one of the world's major religion, Islam has not been sufficiently acted upon by Western governments. A number of reasons come to mind:

  • Saudi Arabia has an outsized capacity to influence the oil market, both by its reserves, its capacity to ramp up production and its ability to do at very low prices (Saudi oil is really cheap to produce). That has long suited the West. Whether it will be as influential when we decarbonize is unlikely.

  • Saudi Arabia imports tons of Western weaponry, sadly probably one of the best ways to "influence" Western foreign policy. It is also anti-Iran aligned, giving it massive dollop of goodwill from the Iran-obsessed USA.

  • Saudi Arabia has, in the past, generously assisted Muslim immigrants in Western countries. For example, some?/many? of the mosques originally built in France for its large Muslim population were built with Saudi money. For more details, you could read here.

All of this can translate to less negative press coverage than might be appropriate, true. And Western civil society seems quite a lot more distrustful of Saudi Arabia than they believe their governments should be. Canada's government for one gets criticized for still exporting weapons to it.

But to claim that there is limited negative press coverage of Saudi Arabia looks like an attempt to discredit.

p.s. on top of that, Saudi regularly gets criticized for other activites such as:

p.p.s. Nothing against the Saudi people. They are, like all too many in the Middle East, ruled by a rather oppressive and incompetent lot (as in similar cases, their government suits Western interests just fine). The current situation is a reflection of their repressive government and its symbiotically-linked clergy, not necessarily of their culture. It would be great if they managed to govern themselves, in the sense of the heady expectations of the early days of the Arab Awakening. Past experience would lead many of us to be somewhat dubious of the likelihood of a positive outcome, but that's still something to hope for.

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  • Do you have some sources to link to prove your answer?
    – FluidCode
    Sep 16 at 15:41
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    So glad you asked. Are you disputing any particular one? This is all pretty well know stuff. Sep 16 at 15:42
  • Actually not. All the articles I read about the situation of the women in Saudi Arabia told that those harsh rules were not imposed from above, but desired by a backward society, which is hardly credible. I never read an article or heard a politician making a statement with the same alarmed tone. I would really like to see an article published on mainstream media with such tones.
    – FluidCode
    Sep 16 at 15:47
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    Not really, no. Saudi may not be the most enlightened place in the universe, but the current situation is largely due to the House of Saud striking a devil's bargain with the Wahhabi sect. "We'll back your religious repression if you say we rule by the grace of God". That's also well known and well covered. Sep 16 at 15:53
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What's happening in Afghanistan is "news". During the US occupation of Afghanistan, the Afghan government had been making progress in its treatment of women. With the Taliban taking over, much of this progress is expected to be reversed. This is a sudden, dramatic change for the worse, so it's natural for it to receive lots of coverage in the media, especially since both the past progress and the recent reversal are direct consequences of US actions.

What's going on in Saudi Arabia is just the status quo in that country, it's not news. When there are changes, the media covers it -- when they gave women the right to drive 2 years ago, that was big news.

As an analogy, in the past few weeks, there have been a couple of incidents of coyotes biting children in my town (a Boston suburb), and this made the news. I'll bet there have been many incidents of dog bites during the same period, but none of them were in the newspaper.

It's also the case that women have better lives in Saudia Arabia than Afghanistan. Even before the recent action of the Taliban, female literacy in Afghanistan was only 17%, versus 45% for men there (reference), and 93% in Saudia Arabia (Wikipedia).

Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security ranks Afghanistan as one of the worst countries for women. (reference)

In the above ranking, Saudia Arabia is 99th place, while Afghanistan is 152nd out of 153 countries ranked. The list is from 2017, before the Saudi reforms of Mohammed bin Salman.

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  • The same comment I wrote in eckes's answer applies here. I did not mean a difference in the amount of news we see today, but a difference in the tone. In reports about Afghanistan it is clear that those rules are imposed from above. In reports about Saudi Arabia not, many articles state that this is due to a backward society which is hardly credible. Also in this case the rules are imposed from above.
    – FluidCode
    Sep 20 at 13:33
  • I've added more information about the differences in women's rights are better in Saudi Arabia than Afghanistan. Not great, but still justification for more coverage of the latter.
    – Barmar
    Sep 20 at 14:07
  • Barmar (the web page does not like your name with the at symbol) Please see the comment in the answer to Acccumulation
    – FluidCode
    Sep 20 at 14:13
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As has been pointed out, Taliban treatment of women is "news", in that it's a new, ongoing event. To go into detail, "news" can have an influence on decisions. In this case:

  • It's ongoing about how many Afghan refugees to settle in the US and where. There's some push-back. Stories about brave young Afghan women encouraged by American national guards-people now huddling in fear will have an impact on those refugee issues.

  • It can be political criticism (of either the President who pulled out, or the one who made a deal to pull out, or the US in general). Once again America broke its promises to loyal allies.

  • It may influence the Taliban. In theory they've promised to be slightly less brutal, and are going to be asking for international aid -- maybe a few can be pressured to decide that pictures of happy girls going to school, not leaving bloody footprints, is worthwhile.

  • It's analysis -- a big US goal was women's rights. After 20 years of trying to change the culture, did it work, even a little? Or are regular Afghanii men welcoming women finally being put back in their place?

  • It may change US policy, which is currently in flux. More drone strikes, fewer? Recognize the Taliban? Send in more special forces? Horror stories may force the US to take a harder line.

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Two answers to this, one cynical and the other practical. Cynical answer first.

Cynical answer

The media is biased, always has been, always will be. The bias can be small, but it's noticeable and there. That's why conservatives read Fox News and liberals read Huffington Post.

Another way to have bias is to decide what to report on. It's why when Crimea voted to join Russia, Western newspapers focused on how the referendum was not free or fair and interviewed Crimean Tartars, while Russian newspapers focused on how Crimeans are overwhelmingly in favor of joining Russia & demonstrations in other parts of Russia in support of Crimea joining Russia. It's why Western newspapers use the word '"annex" and Russian newspapers use "ascension". Both report facts, but both push a different narrative.

You see something similar with Saudi Arabia & Afghanistan. Western newspapers want to push the idea that the Taliban are evil people who repress women, hence they report extensively on Taliban atrocities and interview women who do not like Sharia law. Note they don't interview women who are happy to live under Sharia law or think Sharia is correct (I am sure some exist, since there are women who wear full-face veils even in countries that don't require it). Western newspapers don't want to push the narrative that the Saudi Arabian leadership are evil people who repress women, hence they don't report it (at least not right now).

Practical answer

Ultimately the newspaper needs to earn money, and to do that it needs to report on what its readers want to read about. Sometimes an event is so major that everyone has to cover it, but other times there is room for discretion. This is when editors of newspapers can be biased (above in the cynical answer).

On the other hand, you can be sure that the editors are also monitoring what their readership are doing. If the articles on Afghanistan generate a lot of clicks, then they are in demand, and the newspaper would quite sensibly keep reporting on Afghanistan.

In practice the two factors kind of intertwine. If a Western newspaper were to start reporting that Afghans are actually happy to live under the Taliban,* then because most Western readers want to believe the Taliban are evil, the readership would move en masse, and the paper would lose money. Equally, the editors of the newspaper want to believe the Taliban are evil, so they are already biased to keep up with kind of reporting. It's an unholy alliance that keeps the media reporting on what it's reporting.

The upshot is people become polarized because they read different newspapers; there are plenty of examples worldwide.

*I have no idea if this is true, but given that answer, it's possible.

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The direction and the frequency of the changes:

From the western viewpoint, women rights in Saudi Arabia are only improving in the last 6 or 7 decades. Major events (like women in SA being allowed to get various education degrees, to drive different types of vehicle or women getting important government or business management positions) are discussed in the media (well, at least in the media I read). But these are not a groundbreaking headlines.

On the other hand, women rights in Afganistan is much more complex and convoluted topic for the same timespan.

Afganistan moved from sharia-style women treatment to nearly european-style (during the better part of the Soviet invasion), sharia again, great deal of improvement during the last 20 years of US-influenced government and once more going to sharia right now.

Such a profound changes in Afganistan make news much more than the slow, but steady development in Saudi Arabia.

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Because the only country that can reasonably supply the US with the oil it needs is the Saudis. Hence the US has to skirt around the human rights violations as to not antagonize a nation that it is more dependent on than what they would care to admit.

Afghanistan has no oil and nobody depends on it for anything. So widespread criticism be they fair or not has no political consequences. The US sells arms to the Saudis but occupy Afghanistan. Politics has always been a dirty game.

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    US is net exporter of oil eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=42735 and the import was not all that important for decades.
    – fraxinus
    Sep 18 at 21:25
  • Besides which, why would "the media" care about offending a political ally? I don't remember them being soft on them during the Oil Crisis in the 1970s. Sep 20 at 6:44
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The premise of your question is, quite simply, false. While it's true that there are many restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia, it is not true that they have no rights, nor is it true that the Taliban imposes no restrictions that Saudi Arabia doesn't impose. Furthermore, while the Taliban has suggested that they will not be as harsh as when they were last in power, there is concern about how far this moderation will extend. When they were last in power, girls were banned from education, and from being seen by female doctor. And since women weren't allowed to be doctors, that meant a serious lack of medical care for women and girls. BTW, the sentence "Women, since the country was founded (between 1920-1930), had no rights" is not grammatically correct. "Had" is simply past, but "since" refers to a period of time. Thus it is ambiguous as to whether your sentence should be corrected to "At the time of the founding, women had no rights" or "Women have not had any rights [at any point] since the founding".

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  • +1. The difference in coverage could easily be justified by e.g. comparing the share of female students in SA vs. share of female students in Afghanistan the last time that the Taliban were in power. Just judging from statistics the track record in Saudi Arabia is probably not stellar (certainly segregation leads to some problems?) but not comparable at all to Afg in the late 1990s.
    – Jan
    Sep 19 at 20:00
  • Thank you for the grammar correction. Actually what I wanted to say is that the rights and the strictness of the rules when the Saud regime was established were similar to those in Afghanistan now that a new regime is taking power. Of course almost one century has passed since Saudi Arabia foundation and some changes happened, but they are very small changes.
    – FluidCode
    Sep 20 at 13:17
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In general:

Objecting to change (Afghanistan) tends to be seen as more pressing and more justified than pushing for change (Saudi Arabia).

Whether or not it actually is either more pressing or more justified is beside the point. The point is just that people tend to see it as such.

It's "more justified"

Humans are rather strongly biased towards maintaining the status quo.

People will often make arguments like "it's just part of their/our culture" or possibly "they/we are happy with the way things are". It is at least true that some are happy with the way things are, which can make it much harder to change it.

It's "more pressing"

Change is a thing that's actively done.

If you push for change: You can try to push for change to happen at a specific point in time, but if you fail to cause change, or if you just try to push for change as soon as possible, then you're just left needing to continue pushing for change until change happens (or you give up). In some cases you may be able to put enough pressure on those who need to make changes to cause change quickly, but in other cases you may just be left needing to continue pushing for change indefinitely, often with little to no clear signs that you're making progress nor any indication of how long it will still take to achieve your goal. It can be a pretty frustrating and unproductive position.

Movements that push for change tend to benefit greatly from specific events. If something bad happens that supports the need for change (like a woman being treated poorly as a result of these laws, in a way that differentiates it from what commonly happens there), or if a step was taken towards making the change ultimately desired (like women being given the right to drive), this can draw a lot of media coverage and help motivate and grow the movement.

If you object to change: If someone else tries to change something, you can object to it when they try to change it. You've succeeded if they stop trying to change it for the moment. If they try again to change it later, you can object again. It's a much more reactive position, typically with a deadline of some sort, and not just something you have to continue doing indefinitely until you succeed. If they do successfully change it, and you continue objecting, then your position becomes one of pushing for change, in which case the point above applies.


All of this would still apply even if they're trying to change it back to the way it recently was.

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Since Afghanistan is a majority muslim country, Sharia law would be implemented whether the Taliban was in government or a regime approved by the West. The question is, not "the country's move to sharia law", but the interpretation thereof.

Although restrictions on women have been reported, such as not being able to drive alone, the coverage lacks nuance. For example, the Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman university, based in Riyadh, is a university wholly dedicated to womens education and has around 34 thousand students with 3,500 teaching staff and 2100 administrative staff. It's worth recalling that quite a number of the colleges in Oxford and Cambridge are womens only (Newnham college in Cambridge still is). That Saudua Arabia is advancing womens rights under its interpretation of Sharia is much less commented upon - the attitude being that these countries are already 'backward'. It's this lack of understanding that hinders progress in the relationship between the West and Islamic countries. The West already see's itself as 'advanced' - not only in technology, but also morals.

Further, Saudia Arabia is much less in the news given that until recently there was a war going on in Afghanistan as part of the US sanctioned war on terrorism since 9-11. Of course, quite a number of the 9-11 terrorists were from Saudia Arabia, in fact 15 out of the 19 hijackers were from there. That little fact seems to have got lost in media brohouha as well as the fact that Saddam Hussein's regime was well known to be secular and chary of Islam and moreover, it was well-known that he had no weapons of mass destruction. In fact, the USA in the immediate aftermath had drawn up serious plans to use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan according to the testimony of a senior foreign policy advisor of the German chancellor at the time until persuaded that this would be a disastrous route to take, even more disastrous than the route they did take.

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  • The assumption that a country will adopt the Sharia just because the majority of population is Muslim is not supported by the facts.
    – FluidCode
    Sep 20 at 13:37
  • @Fluidcode: If it isn't supported by the facts give me an example. Sep 20 at 17:19
  • Tunisia and Turkey dont really use Sharia (despite Erdogan in Turkey). No one lost the plot about the 15 hijackers in any brouhaha btw. Nuclear weapons in Afghanistan? Please provide hard sources, as it makes zilcho sense to nuke dispersed rebels in a countryside, purely at a military level, let alone PR level. -1. Sep 20 at 18:41
  • @Italian philosophers 4 Monica: Turkey has recently begun imposing islamic finance laws in finance, and whilst under the ruling AKP party, alcohol has not been banned, it has become increasing expensive. Personally, I think Turkey is a special case, as Attaturk completely secularised the country and the public sphere after the loss of the Ottoman empire. Bangladesh is another country that has a secular constitution but its family law is sharia based, includimg marriage, divorce, alimony and property inheritence. Sep 21 at 4:17
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    @MoziburUllah As you van see by this Map most of the muslim countries either do not apply the Sharia or apply some rules without the strict Saudi interpretation. Another example to see how uncommon is that extreme interpretation is the overview of alcohol bans thoughout the world
    – FluidCode
    Sep 21 at 14:25

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