Commentary

Saudis Debate Women's Rights

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Women’s rights are all over the pages of the main Saudi dailies, against the backdrop of the first anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah appointing women as full-fledged members of the Shura Council (Saudi Arabia’s consultative body). Both Arab News and the Saudi Gazette have become something of a public square in which Saudis — women and men — have debated the merits and significance of the most recent demands for women to be allowed to drive. Even though the arguments are often couched in the language of economic interests or pragmatism, it is clear that the dialogue is really about the speed and scope of widespread social reform.

Presaging the discussion that would ensue over the next two weeks, the Saudi Gazette staff begins with a report on Al-Mahdi, a Saudi woman who has broken a “male monopoly in construction…. Al-Mahi talked about the difficulties she faced at the start. She said, ‘The biggest problem was that society did not have confidence in a woman working in this field. They expected me to fail. But I had confidence in myself and my capabilities.’...Speaking about her experience, Al-Mahi said society would accept women working in all fields so long as they stay within the limits set by the Shariah (Islamic law). ‘There will be nothing hindering their work. Society will gradually accept them.’ She said some segments of society still oppose women working in this profession.”

For Asharq Alawsat’s Tariq Al-Mubarak, Al-Mahdi’s experience and example shows that “It’s Time to Change Women’s Place in the Arab World…. We need to reconsider some concepts of Islamic jurisprudence, keeping in mind the human dignity that has been endorsed by all religions. Some members of our societies have already objected to changes made in the status of women, such as allowing them to be educated and awarding them scholarships to study abroad. These detractors base their arguments on exaggerated assumptions and fears aimed at undermining key human rights…. It is high time we moved forward with bringing about change, in order to live up to the aspirations of this promising generation of Gulf women.”

One of those changes that many women’s’ rights advocates in Saudi Arabia is the right to drive. Writing for the Saudi Gazette, Abdullah Al-Alami argues that such a right is a basic one for Saudi women: “Wednesday, Sept. 25, was an occasion for Saudi women and the entire nation to celebrate. This date marks the first anniversary of the announcement made by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah that women will be appointed full-fledged members of the Shoura Council…. Since then, Saudi women have suffered many constraints and setbacks in their daily lives. Among others, these included abusing and bad-mouthing the women who have become Shoura Council members and also those who practice sports in private schools or in fitness clubs....The demand for women driving is not an optional one. It is the right of women to demand to be allowed to drive.”

One of the arguments being made is that the ban on driving for women is not religious, but rather cultural. Considering the precedent set by women in the desert and rural areas of the Kingdom, one of the female Shoura Council members suggests in an interview with Okaz that legal obstacles to driving by women are anachronistic: “the issue of allowing women to drive cars in the Kingdom has become a vortex wherein the proponents of the move have come to be accused as morally corrupt, a leading female Shoura Council member has said…. Dr. Thoraya Obaid said she was astonished at the way false accusations are being leveled against anyone who talks about granting women permission to drive.... The Shoura member said driving is a skill like any other a woman needs to manage her daily chores.”

Then there are those who — even though they haven’t come out in opposition to the recent demands — have urged caution and re-prioritizing what they consider more urgent needs. To begin with, one Arab News editorial calls for more restraint from the activists, asking them to balance the desire for change with the need to abide by the law: “The views of women who want the driving ban lifted should be listened to with respect. Equally deserving of a hearing are those women who see no need for change. What should not happen is for there to be a confrontation that can lead to bitterness and recrimination....However, those women activists who seek to provoke change by direct action, should think carefully. Flouting the law and driving cars openly, challenging the authorities to act, as has already happened, is perhaps not the way to advance the debate.”

In another op-ed for Arab News, Abdulateef Al-Mulhim points out that ‘Driving alone can't define Saudi women's progress’ then proceeds to ask them to consider whether other concerns might more pressing for women and the society as a whole: “I am sure other traditional societies in the east would also object to the way in which they are asking for their right to drive. In the case of Saudi Arabia, this demand raises quite a few eyebrows just because many of the ‘activists’ are living abroad....And many women in Saudi Arabia say that the right to drive does not top their priority list. There are far more important social demands. The issue of driving can be solved in one day. But other issues such as unemployment or women abuse are far more complicated and needs immediate attention.”

But for the women’s advocates, demands for doing away with driving ban are more than just about transportation. Sabria S. Jawhar, for example, expresses her joy at the fact that the demands are coming from within the Shura Council by female members: “It’s no longer just a man’s world. OK, mostly yes it is. However, Shoura Council members Latifa Al-Shaalan, Muna Al-Mishit and Haya Al-Mani gave a voice to Saudi women by recommending that the ban on women driving be lifted....I am sure the three brave women on the Shoura Council know that the new generation of private drivers is exploiting the ban on women driving to satisfy their patriarchal urges and find a way to make more money. The guys? No, they don’t know so much. I am thinking that the appointment of women to the Shoura Council is finally bearing fruit.”

Similarly, Al Arabiya’s Abdulrahman al-Rashed argues “The new development is not the demand to grant Saudi women the right to drive, rather, the new development is that three women members of the Saudi Shura Council have called for this right.... This means that both their representative role as women and their legislative role as members of the Shura Council have been activated. When it comes to the sensitive issue of women driving, this is a brave council and these are brave women....Whether the government listens to the three women’s recommendation or not, the issue of women driving has become a highly debated case in local public circles. The price of failing to grant women this right costs everyone a lot in terms of politics and economics.”

And finally, Asharq Alawsat’s Mshari Al-Zaydi asserts that, regardless of the final outcome of the debate on the driving ban, the engagement of the society and state institutions at all levels of governance ensures that the current campaign has already been a success: “The recommendation filed by three female members of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council — Latifa Al-Shaalan, Haya Al-Mani, and Mona Al-Mashit — to lift the ban on women driving in the country must be praised. This was a carefully considered Shura Council recommendation, economically, socially, religiously, and even psychologically....Three female council members taking the decision to issue this recommendation via the Shura Council represents an important and meaningful step. This is something that has raised the debate about women driving in Saudi Arabia from internet forums and the media to institutes of the state and the veins of government. This, in itself, is a big step forward, regardless of the ultimate fate of this recommendation.”


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