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The Rights of Women in Saudi Arabia

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Erum al-Howaish, like many young women from conservative Saudi Arabia, expects King Abdullah's watershed decision last Sunday to allow women to vote and run in elections to be the start of a new phase of women's rights reforms.

The 21-year-old politics student in London reacted with jubilation at the king's decree, which will allow women to take seats in the Shura Council, which advises the monarchy.

"The king's realizing that the women's voices are vital in the political process means a lot to me," said al-Howaish, who broke into tears after reading the news on Twitter while grocery shopping.

Women in the kingdom, the world's biggest oil exporter, have been rallying for greater rights this year against a backdrop of popular unrest in many countries across the Arab world, where protesters succeeded in unseating dictators in Tunisia and Egypt.

While many women received the news with delight, they also pointed to its limitations, noting that the Shura Council (the appointed parliament) has not had a tremendous influence on government policy. Nonetheless, it's a change that brings hope to many Saudi women.

"We're celebrating the symbolic meaning of it, but it doesn't really affect our day-to-day lives," said Eman al-Nafjan, a 33-year-old blogger in Riyadh, who learned about the move from a friend. "It's not that women are being allowed to drive, nor is it relaxing the guardianship system a bit, which would affect an average Saudi woman."

Implementing change in favor of women's rights in Saudi Arabia will be an uphill battle, as reformers face steep opposition from numerous right-wing Islamic clerics who uphold the validity of blocking women's access to public life so much so that they are against women's fitness, the lifting of the ban on women driving, and the ability for women to move without the permission of male guardians.

Within hours of the decree announcement, Dr. Mohammed al-Habdan, a right-wing religious cleric, told his followers on Twitter that "the majority of clerics" regard women's participation in the Shura Council as "haram," or forbidden by Islamic law.

The king's speech was carefully worded, while quoting the most baffling interpretation of Islamic law, to ensure that conservatives understand that his decision comes after consultation with religious clerics and is aligned with the rights given to women in Islam.

"We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society in every field of work," said Abdullah, addressing the all-male Shura council. "Women have the right to submit their candidacy for municipal Council membership and have the right to take part in submitting candidates in accordance with Sharia [the Islamic Law]."

With two antithetical religious interpretations of exactly the same issue, one starts to wonder who is correct and who is not. It is important to understand the mindset suspicious of "modernity" as juxtaposed to the Saudi traditions, which are often rooted in the tribal traditions, yet are deemed synonymous with the religious code.

The long attempt to subdue women's independence is not founded in the tussle between men and women, as al-Nafjan explains, but rather the dichotomy between the conservatives, or Wahabbis, and the so called Western-minded liberals.

"The ultra-conservatives are people who follow the principal that tradition is a possible source for Sharia," said al-Nafjan in a Skype interview. Though absurd, the Saudi heritage overrides the various rights women cherished after the inception of Islam.

Women have accompanied the last prophet of Islam -- his first wife ran a successful business of her own-- and women had the liberty to voice their views and interact with men in the marketplace. Following the prophet's footsteps, the second caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab entrusted Shifa' bint 'AbdAllah with the sensitive post of supervisor whose duties required ensuring that the busy market of Medina was free of corruption. And, to no surprise, women participate in politics in most majority-Muslim countries today.

The reason why a reformist, pro-women's rights monarch cannot bring real change is perhaps due to the threat of rebellion from members of the extreme right-wing, who hold traditions as sacred and consider themselves the keepers of religious virtue.

"The government is taking baby steps," said al-Howaish, adding that "they are trying to satisfy both factions of the society."

The kingdom recently celebrated its 81st anniversary and it has a long way to go when it comes to women's rights. Al-Nafjan pointed out that Saudi Arabia abolished slavery only five decades ago, and that the Saudi people started to see the world beyond its "traditions" when satellite TV, which remained taboo until the turn of the millennium, was introduced in early 1990s. "My father's satellite dish that he had on the roof of our house was shot out," recalls al-Nafjan.

Despite the bitter and sustained opposition over the past several years toward any measure that favors women's rights, Saudi women are confident that the king's move is setting the stage for more reforms to come.

It may seem too little, too late, but like many other Saudi women, Deema al-Jaber, 23, believes that this edict is only a prelude for relaxing many other restrictions that marginalize Saudi women. In an interview in Arabic, al-Jaber quoted Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel: "Our generation is not a problem to be solved, but we are a solution to the problems."

Among the Saudi women I have interviewed, there is an echoing enthusiasm that the king's decision is "a step in the right direction." After the announcement, al-Howaish wore a brooch bearing the picture of the 87-year-old king from the House of Saud on top of a Saudi flag that reads the declaration of the Muslim faith with pride.

I only hope that this pride remains and doesn't turn the optimist Saudi women into cynics--which is all the more likely if these women, who are anxious for change, don't see the long list of the desired reforms that will actually benefit Saudi women form a reality.


This article first appeared on Washington Post's On Faith blog.

Around the Web

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Women of Saudi Arabia Photos - National Geographic

BBC News - Women in Saudi Arabia to vote and run in elections

Saudi Arabia to allow women to vote - Los Angeles Times

Saudi Arabia: women look at the bigger picture - Telegraph