Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Govt seems to think Saudi women doing just fine

Could it be that no one is interested in establishing a women’s support group in Saudi Arabia? Is it possible that women have all the support they need to find jobs, get an education and achieve that ultimate dream of zipping around Jeddah in a BMW Z28?

Apparently the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs thinks so. And I, for one, appreciate their confidence that Saudi women can go it alone and not need the help of organized groups.

I don’t know Sulaiman Al-Salman, the guy who thought up Ansar Al-Ma’rah, which translates to Supporters of Women, and what exactly are his goals. He says he has about two dozen people ready to help him launch the support group as the first official organization to fight for Saudi women’s rights.

The Ministry of Social Affairs said “no” or just pretty much ignored him, which seems par for the course for the government when they just rather have things go away. The National Human Rights Society and the Saudi Human Rights Commission can pretty much attest to the fact that that in some circles they rather not be seen or heard by the government, especially after the groups see report after report tossed in the circular file for further non-action.

According to media reports, Al-Salman said he wanted to start the organization to improve the lives of Saudi women. But he complained the Ministry said it was not authorized to approve the organization. Yet many other humanitarian groups received approval, he said.

Part of Al-Salman’s problem may be of the chicken before the egg nature. He says he is getting plenty of support from individuals and businesses, but no financial support. And if I am reading his concerns correctly, not a lot of people are standing up publicly to be counted as supporting the group. It seems that most people are taking a wait-and-see attitude. If the government approves Ansar Al-Ma’rah, then all is well and good and let the work begin. But the prevailing wisdom is why stick one’s neck out if there is no official support? Without people putting their name publicly to the project it’s doomed to failure.

If there ever is a need for a women’s rights group, then Saudi Arabia is fertile ground for one. One only has to look our judicial system to see the scales of justice tilted toward customs and traditions instead of well-reasoned laws that protect women in domestic cases. The list of judicial transgressions against Saudi women is long and growing longer.

Saudi woman, it seems, are reduced to theatrics to get the government’s attention. We have one activist driving a car on some dusty desert road in the middle of nowhere, then posting her “protest” on YouTube to publicize our right to drive a car. Another has started an Internet petition drive to gain support to allow women to work in lingerie shops. And for those ladies with a temper, they just storm the Hiy'a’s office in Madinah and throw around furniture, and shout and flail their arms about at the bewildered muttaween.

All of it doesn’t amount to much. And it would be wonderful if an organized women’s rights group, with the backing of Saudi intellectuals and business leaders, was given a voice by the government to air grievances and find solutions to help give women more opportunities to be a part of Saudi society. But such a group will only be as effective as the government allows. The two human rights groups now operating in Saudi Arabia haven’t made much progress since their foundings.

If a women’s right organization wants recognition from the government then it must begin with people who have influence. That is, the founding membership must be civic leaders with the gravitas to get things done and are willing to commit their time and resources to the project before authorization is requested from the government. If leading businessmen and women from Jeddah, Riyadh and Madinah are willing to explore issues affecting women, and then stick with the plan by working with the government toward reform, then there is a chance for success.

A single man, or woman, on a mission with the half-hearted backing of shadow supporters will not get the job done. But people willing to stand up and be counted, and even willing to take some grief from their neighbors, just might pull it off.


hend. said...

I think it's interesting that you said Saudi women are reduced to theatrics--I see this happen all the time here in the US, but didn't realize that it is the case even in Saudia.

Lindsey said...

great post. organization really and real community support is really will begin to make a difference.

ms.truewrite said...

I have been concerned for a long time about the hardship of women in Saudi Arabia (this started with the reading of some literature from women of your country, including the book “Princess”). In the title of this entry you reference the government’s lack of vision for increasing women’s rights and I would like to explore this a bit. From what I know, the legal system in Saudi Arabia is based upon Sharia Law, which finds its source in the Qur’an and the Sunnah.
I have examined the Qur’an and Sunnah and their sayings about women. There are verses that uphold the dignity of women and seem to convey equality (4:19, 33:35). There are also verses that seem to put women underneath men, and even condoning their mistreatment (2:228, 4:11, 4:34). When I went to research the Qur’an and women, many of the websites I came to declare Islam to be a religion of gender equality.
Since one of the main concerns in your entry is apparent government disinterest in women’s rights, I thought I would explore the reasons behind this disinterest. My central question is this: Are Saudi rulers and officials truly upholding Sharia Law to the best of their understanding, and thus limiting women, or are they using interpretation of the Qur’an and Sharia for their own purposes of power and control? If the second scenario is true, than I would think it was the duty of all Saudis, men and women, to defend the truth of the Qur’an and to oppose any incorrect interpretation of it.
You are very right when you say a women’s rights organization requires the involvement of leaders and people of public standing to get started. I also agree with the fact that people must be “willing to stand up and be counted”. This is the difficulty of a reform movement; there is risk and danger involved for those who threaten leaders in power. Ghandi and the people of India faced it in the 20’s and Martin Luther King and his fellow African Americans faced it in the 60’s, and until Saudi’s are willing to commit to change, no matter what it takes, the process will be painfully slow.

myriam vollant said...

i dont think we need organisation, and those closed mind of those men who forbid women to drive, we cant change them, its us women who got to take the key of the car of the driver and drive on the road, i done it in my street in jeddah and no problem! the men was very positive and smiling and all of them was happy! even i drive back my car in front of mobily men shop to let the place to a bedouin man and he thanks me as it was normal! yes ladies! dont wait for organisation or activists women,be brave, make istirrarra and go! little by little, at first in front of your door 100 meters only and if you dont know how to drive, go by numbers to dallah center to ask licence. i will do that next week with some of expatriates women, and everydays for 1 week! thank you, its our rights nothing is written in penalties for driving issues about women and if you look on internet at how to get driving licence in saudia, you will find nowhere written that its forbidden for women to apply driving saudi license salam aleikum

Durdana said...

"Could it be that no one is interested in establishing a women’s support group in Saudi Arabia?"

I have been thinking of doing something specifically to help Saudi women. I grew up in KSA and I know first hand. I believe entrepreneurship is a solution.

I broke through many so called religious and cultural objections to become an independent woman and I wish to empower other women who want to as well.

If someone wants to reach out to me to set up an organized group to help Saudi women (or any nationality). I am all in favor for it. Email me at