THE BLOG
05/01/2013 01:36 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

Saudi Women Edge Toward Equal Rights Reform

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Is permission to ride a bike the first step toward lifting the ban on Saudi women driving a car? A recent government ruling allows women to ride bikes or buggies in parks and recreational areas on condition they wear full Islamic dress. In case riders become tangled in their billowing black robes and fall off, they must be accompanied by male guardians, and to avoid social mixing, must stay clear of any public areas frequented by men.

Women activists like Wajeha Al-Huwaider have petitioned to lift the driving ban, and also campaigned against child marriage and the guardianship laws that force women to obtain permission from male kin for legal procedures, education, marriage and travel.

The monarch's cautious reforms of state-sponsored discrimination might raise little interest in the West, if it were not for their potential impact in the oil-rich kingdom, with its global economic, political and religious influence.

Saudi Arabia funds mosques and Islamic studies in many countries, a mission rooted in the mid 18th century agreement between Prince Muhammad ibn Saud and a Muslim cleric, Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab. The alliance legitimized the House of Saud's custody of Islam's holy cities of Mecca and Medina in exchange for the advance of Wahhabi Islam, a more extremist form of the religion. Wahhabism is manifest in state law and the clerical police. Rivalry with Iran has pushed the Kingdom to adopt an even more pious image.

Saudi theologians are deeply opposed to women's equality, and many fear reform as a westernizing influence that allegedly contaminates Islam and draws Muslim youth away from religion. Overturning the driving ban and other gender discrimination would fracture sexual segregation, the bedrock of cultural practice and religion.

Any attempt at reform is subject to Saudi King Abdullah's bond and tension with the religious authorities that uphold his power. Moreover, Western governments avoid criticizing the Saudi state, as both are inextricably linked through huge deals in oil, arms and investments. The symbiotic relationship has sanctioned a free pass for women's rights violations in Saudi Arabia.

The king has introduced a number of reforms. Scholarships encourage thousands of students of both sexes to study in Western universities. A new single sex campus at Riyadh University for Women accommodates more than 50,000 students. Recently, the first female trainee lawyer was registered, creating a groundbreaking path for women in a country where courts are sexually segregated and a woman's testament is worth half that of a man's.

From 2015, women will have the right to vote and run as candidates in municipal elections.

Sons and husbands of Saudi women married to non-Saudis can now become citizens of the Kingdom.

Last January, the 89-year-old monarch recognized women's contribution to society when he appointed 30 women to represent one fifth of the Shura Council, which advises on new legislation. Dozens of clergy protested, charging that the move transgressed Islamic law.

The number of women employed in the private sector has reportedly doubled, presumably due to recent government reforms. Although representing almost 60 percent of university graduates, women contribute only 16.5 percent of the workforce. On average, they earn about half the salary of men, however Ministry of Labor regulations stipulate equal pay for equal work.

"Wadjda," the first Saudi feature film and story of a girl who hoped to ride a bike, was produced with royal approval. Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, a woman who attended film school in Australia, the movie is a subtle critique of Saudi society.

Cultural change is also reflected in the actions of some men in the law, media, and Shura Council, who condemn violence against women, and lenient sentences for offenders.

Saudi youth has become more restive and vocal in the public discourse. YouTube viewers, half of them female, number among the highest in the world.

Women in the Eastern province are becoming more active in human rights, and Saudi women in general are making headway, gaining tertiary degrees and using the Internet for mounting dissent against archaic laws and traditions. Young, educated women can see through the pretense of a male dominated culture that demands infantilization and obedience in exchange for protestations of respect and honor. Some women who have become acculturated to the West will not tolerate the gender apartheid and modest pace of reform, and may campaign for change or even emigrate.

The Arab Spring uprisings have pushed back reforms of gender discriminatory laws in the region. It would be ironic if the course of women's rights in one of the most repressive Muslim countries flowed against this trend.