Commentary

A Step Forward for Women in Saudi Arabia

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

This week’s announcement by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that women would now have a greater role in Saudi society and politics has been greeted with understandable excitement. Sentiments expressed across various media range from cautious optimism to daring musings about what the future has in store for women in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region in general. However, as some have been quick to point out, much more needs to be done to tap into one of the most resourceful segments of the society.

The Saudi Arab News editorial was unsurprisingly congratulatory of the move but does not hesitate to consider the road ahead: “Change has been slow, but the king has accelerated the reform process by working within a consensus that takes into account the varied viewpoints in the Kingdom,…so changes, although imperceptible, are under way….Today’s decision, however, is a momentous step that could change the social and political fabric of the Kingdom. The right for women to join the Shoura Council is significant as it is the most influential political body in the country....The king’s bold initiatives throw up some key questions on the road to change. On a macro level, the Kingdom will have to address the issue of continuing reforms with the women’s voices too being heard. For there’ll be more mobility, more exposure and more intertwined problems arising from their presence in the council.”

The other Saudi daily,—The Saudi Gazette—sees the monarch at the heart of the society’s ongoing modernization process: “The King’s announcement confirms that the modernization project in the Kingdom is a non-stop process because of the determination of the nation’s leaders that building the country depends upon the use of Saudi national resources whether they are women or men. It is beyond doubt that the entry of Saudi women to the Shoura Council and regional municipal councils will strengthen the role of government institutions. The country would not have realized all of these remarkable achievements without the farsighted vision of its leadership which supports the role of women in the development process.”

The blogging community in Saudi Arabia, and especially women bloggers, commented extensively on the move. Sabria Jawhar writing in her blog Saudi Writer believes, “To say that Saudi King Abdullah’s decree to give women the right to vote and become Shoura Council members is a historic moment would be an understatement. The women’s suffrage movement is only part of the story. To celebrate our victory to cast ballots in municipal elections and run for office, we must also acknowledge the Arab Spring and the spilled blood of our Middle East neighbors. Without them, we might still be begging for our rights....The women’s driving movement also brought about change. Although there was no mention of it in the King’s speech, it’s clear that the June driving campaigns had a tremendous effect on our future....The King took a giant leap forward, but it’s only the first of many steps we must take. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to hop into my car and drive up to Riyadh to apply for Shoura Council membership.”

Ahmed Al Omran aggregates the various opinions shared across various social-media networks in his Saudi Jeans blog: “An announcement about women driving was what many Saudi women were expecting, so the news about allowing women to run and vote in municipal elections and serve on the Shoura Council took everyone by surprise. Saudi citizens on Twitter reacted with excitement: ‘Hey, world! I’m a Saudi woman. I can vote! And very soon I’ll be able to drive, too! Wait for it.’...However, not everyone shared the excitement. They pointed out that women in Saudi Arabia still can’t drive, and they are still under male guardianship rules: ‘Am I supposed to be thrilled that Saudi women will vote in two years but are still under male guardianship?’...But many hoped that this would be an important first step and that more steps will follow soon: ‘Hopefully, following this decision, all discussions about gender interaction (workplace, cashiers, etc.) will become irrelevant.’”

Across the region, commentators and editorial writers also viewed the development as an important step forward.  UAE’s The National editorial opines, “The extension of political rights to Saudi women is a momentous step, likely to be remembered as a turning point in the country's political development....The new royal commitment opens the door to the beginning of a role for women in the political life of the kingdom, a country where women's role in public life is still very limited. Across the region, the political empowerment of women is an ongoing process....These reforms, King Abdullah said, were being introduced ‘because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Sharia.’ Saudi women who have been campaigning for other rights, prominently the right to drive, will see many interpretations of this statement. For King Abdullah and other reformists in Saudi Arabia, there certainly will be further momentous decisions made.”

The Gulf Times editorial calls the move a “significant step forward for Saudi women's rights…. About 10 years ago the Saudi monarch had said that women should be central to the Saudi economy. In the following years, the kingdom has been gradually taking steps to reduce segregation and give more respect to women....Including Saudi women in the public sphere was perhaps a matter of time. In most of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the gender gap in the workplace is already narrowing due to the bigger numbers of women opting to get educated and become full-time professionals....The pressures of a patriarchal society are thought to be the chief cause of why the Gulf’s women account for only about 20 percent of the workforce despite making up 48 percent of the GCC’s population. Acknowledging women in the public sphere will make the Gulf states a more equitable place for all.”

Others, like Asharq Alawsat’s Salman Aldossary, wonder whether “the king's decree [was] a surprise.... It is hard to say so, as anyone who closely monitors the changes taking place in the Saudi street, and King Abdullah's constant reformative measures, must understand that such a decree was undoubtedly imminent....Crucially in the coming period, the mobility of Saudi women rests on the quality of their participation in the upcoming Shura Council term. It is true that women have demonstrated a great deal of proficiency in all sectors of the labour market, yet the entire world, not just the Saudis alone, will focus their attention on them as soon as they begin their work in the Council....There is no way now that women's rights can be marginalized after the momentum has been instigated by royal desire and public support. There is no room for defeatist or hesitant people anymore.”

Regardless of whether the move was anticipated or not, as the Khaleej Times editorial notes, the decision is bound “to be a boost to tens of thousands of women who have long desired a bigger role in society. The fact remains that Saudi women have been marginalized, unlike other women in neighboring Gulf States. Fortunately, now they are being given a chance to discover their full potential and define their roles as integral players in politics and other socio-economic aspects....Half of the municipal council seats in Saudi Arabia, of a total of 285 (since 2005, when the first election took place) are elected, while the other half are appointed by the government. With women now being allowed to stand and vote in these elections from the next term onwards, the face of Saudi politics is likely to change forever. The good thing is that Riyadh is cognizant of the changed times and is mindful of listening to the demands of all members of civil society in line with religious beliefs and tradition.”

 


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