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 Hi’ya’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.

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