Sunday, September 25, 2011

Saudi Women Demonstrate They are Capable of Making Change

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 may still be begging for our rights.

When the King announced earlier this year funding for various projects, Western analysts dismissed his efforts as a cynical ploy to keep Saudi citizens quiet. This attitude ignored King Abdullah’s well-documented support for women’s rights since he assumed the monarchy in 2005. Above all, King Abdullah has remained consistent in his approach to reform, whether through the Ministry of Labor to relax gender segregation rules or to provide more funding for scholarships for women university students studying abroad.

Yet King Abdullah is not blind to the bloodshed in Libya, Syria and Yemen. The impact of the revolutions has been significant. I’m convinced the King likely would have given women the right to vote and Shoura Council membership with or without our neighbors taking to the streets. But certainly there was an urgency to grant these rights now rather than later.

I’m not suggesting the Saudi government feared the tide of revolution spreading to Saudi Arabia. Rather, the government responded to Saudis’ restlessness to pick up the pace of reform. Religious conservatives continue to emotionally blackmail Saudis by preying on their weaknesses to always be good Muslims. That means resist change. The Saudis I know possess intellectual honesty. In our hearts we acknowledge the need for accelerated reforms in a shrinking world where human rights violations can’t easily be swept under the rug. We recognize that moving toward women’s rights at a leisurely pace in the 20th century doesn’t work so well in the 21st century.

The women’s driving movement also brought about change. Although there was no mention of it in the King’s speech, it’s clear the June driving campaigns had a tremendous effect on our future. It’s only a matter of time that women will be behind the wheel. The driving issue isn’t really up to the Saudi government, but Saudi women and their families.

It’s a proud moment for Saudi women to win this victory. However, this isn’t the end. We must have municipal councils that are open to the public, encourage citizen participation, and be responsive to the public’s wants and needs. We are not anywhere near that since we have little transparency in local government. We must also tighten the rules in the electoral process to eliminate cross-district voting. We must also stop efforts to subvert elections with so-called “Golden Lists” that give the religious conservatives voter clout by again exploiting Saudis’ eagerness to elect “good” Muslims.

And while full membership in the Shoura Council exceeded our highest expectations, we must move towards having Shoura Council members elected by the people instead appointed by the government.

In his speech, King Abdullah, said, "Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulama (clerics) and others... to involve women in the Shoura Council as members, starting from the next term."

Sharia is the key here. We have long recognized that Sharia provides rights to women within the context of Islam, but that it never has been implemented fairly and properly. By understanding our true rights under Sharia, women now should educate themselves in politics, the economy and become active in NGOs. This will help build a civil society and prevent religious conservatives from hijacking our happiness by dragging their feet to implement the King’s decrees.

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.


The Linoleum Surfer said...

Ameen, Sheikha Sabria, ameen.

Maybe it's worth guessing that the women's blogging movement also plays its part. This is a huge step, an important one, and to be acclaimed rather than met with cynicism.

I think you need to have spent a lot of time in Saudi Arabia at least to understand exactly the strength of the social, not political forces, that make progress in women's issues slow sometimes. People underestimate how conscious traditional rulers are of having to rule with the consent of their people. Democracy is not the only way people express themselves.

Bringing suffrage to women, and putting women alongside men in the Shura has been twenty years and a generational attitude shift in the making. This announcement is tantamount to King Abdullah's having moved a mountain. God bless him for having the political courage to do so.

CaitieCat said...

This is remarkable! Congratulations to the women's movement!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations to all Saudi women. I was so happy when I heard the news yesterday and I am happy today as well. I will probably by happy for a few more days before I calm down. What more can I say? Good luck. And enjoy your drive up to Riyadh. Never mind paths, a dual carriageway has been opened up! :)

Mehmet Can URAL said...

That is a wonderful news. Congratulations!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, it's unfortunate your articles aren't published in western media outlets like some other saudi women. I guess that's because you're not seen as "liberal" or that you don't look "westernized", just something I noticed anyways I'm not Saudi but I enjoy reading your opinion on issues that affect your country.

rasha said...

Thanks alot for your great insights and wise writing! I follow your blog regularly and just wanted to say thanks for putting it out there! I’m originally from saudi arabia, too, and so all the issues you adress directly concern my family, too …

anyway, thanks a bunch, and please keep up the great work!