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.