The column appeared in Arab News 27/12/2012
A Saudi Arabia continues its reform process at a snail’s pace and granting women more rights, we hit a milestone in 2013 with 10 percent of the 150 seats in the Shoura Council going to women.
Whether this is a window dressing remains to be seen, but I have my doubts that the road to equality will suddenly be paved with gold with men throwing rose petals at our feet as we march to a greater tomorrow.
The battle to join Saudi society — really, women stand on the margins of our society and more or less wait politely to become full-fledged members — is in its infancy. Female representation in the Shoura Council will not matter much if the male chorus drowns out our right to bring up social issues that affect not only women but also the supposed core of Saudi society: The family.
Despite my doubts, I am optimistic that women will achieve a high degree of equality. I cannot bring myself to say complete equality as advocated by the West, nor do I necessarily believe that complete equality is the right thing for Saudi Arabia. What I do believe in women’s equality as defined in Islam. That means the right to work, seek an education, have the rights guaranteed under Shariah and much, much more.
Since King Abdullah implemented his reforms beginning in 2005, Saudi Arabia has much to be proud of in addition to having women on the Shoura Council.
Consider the positives:
• Women will have the right to vote and run for office in municipal elections. Whether women will vote in large numbers remains to be seen, given the sway husbands, fathers and brothers have on the women in their families. That said, what boxes someone checks off once in the voting booth will remain between the voter and her conscience.
• Saudi women can attend law schools, earn a juris doctorate, work in law firms and meet with clients. As of this moment, female lawyers are not representing men, nor are they appearing in courts before judges. I see this changing, especially in the field of family law where women face harsh discrimination.
• The Ministry of Labor has paved the way for women to be fully integrated in the retail sector. We see Saudi women working in restaurants as servers and hostesses, and in shopping malls selling cosmetics, lingerie, abayas and jewelry. They are also often the sole operators of mall kiosks.
• The Ministry of Higher Education has done a commendable job of implementing King Abdullah’s scholarship program to see that Saudis earn a graduate and postgraduate degree from universities throughout the world. Many Saudi women have taken advantage of studying in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. The success rate has been nothing short of extraordinary. At least 60 percent of the university graduates are Saudi women.
• The Ministry of Social Affairs is poised to issue licenses to Saudi women to open daycare centers. This is a huge leap in helping women provide the necessary childcare for working mothers.
• The Saudi government granted nearly 2,000 Saudi women permission in 2011 to marry non-Saudis, including a handful of Westerners. This provides a glimpse of the shifting attitudes of the government to encourage marriage among Saudi women who will not succumb to societal pressure to marry another Saudi. Two-thousand marriages do not sound like much, and it isn’t, but a significant change from just a decade ago.
These are achievements that I thought I would never see in my lifetime. When examined in its totality, the King’s reforms are real and have had a tremendous impact on thousands of Saudi women.
Yet obstacles remain on many levels. Most notable is the religious establishment that exploits Saudis’ weaknesses on all things Islamic. By playing on our fears that we might be less of a Muslim that they are, some religious leaders use threats and intimidation in an attempt to keep the status quo.
Consider the negatives:
• Some sheikhs routinely cast aspersions on women and the men in their family if women choose to work outside the home. Religious scholars appeal directly to the Ministry of Labor to revoke its decisions to grant women access to the workplace.
• Women are often deemed as corrupted if they study at Western universities.
• Saudi women are unable to find suitable employment after earning their university degrees. They often look outside Saudi Arabia for jobs. Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman, and even some Western countries are now benefiting from the talent of educated Saudi women, especially those in the medical field.
• Domestic law courts continue to be a minefield for Saudi women. Despite years of promises that codified laws will be in place, Saudi courts remain extremely favorable to Saudi men. Court rulings are still based on a mixture of tribal experiences and Shariah knowledge of judges. The rule of law often does not apply in divorce, custody, alimony and inheritance cases. This is a direct violation of Shariah.
• Saudi women are denied the right to drive a vehicle in urban areas. Much of this is due to the reluctance of women possessing international driving licenses to get behind the wheel and challenge society by simply driving. So they share some responsibility in their failure to achieve driving rights. However, the sorry state of public transportation and the hypocrisy of some religious leaders to insist we share a car with a driver who is an unrelated male make relative independence, not to mention finding meaningful employment, elusive.
Saudi society is in a profound state of flux, but it’s positive change. Our society cannot survive without change and without introducing half the population to the full benefits of the society we live in. The Kingdom is diversifying its economy by placing less emphasis on oil production and more on alternative energy, petrochemicals, and auto and auto parts production. At the same time, our country must also recognize that diversification means educating and employing its female population. Without the participation of women, Saudi Arabia will only achieve half its goals.