Saudi women are praising King Abdullah's decision allowing them to vote and run for local office for the first time in elections set for 2015. However, women’s rights activists continue to push for more freedoms, both within Saudi Arabia and in other parts of the Arab world.
“Half a democracy is not a democracy,” says Zainab Al-Suwaij of the American Islamic Congress, an organization that builds interfaith and interethnic understanding while at the same time representing the diversity of American Muslim life. She says the real work lies in recognizing women’s voices, but complains that “when it comes to form a democracy and form a government, women are always in the back.”
Watch our video report:
While the Saudi king’s latest concession may appear to be the result or at least a by-product of the Arab Spring, an early sign of his apparent willingness to seek compromise came in 2009 when he appointed Norah al-Faiz as Deputy Minister for Women's Education.
However, Saudi women have yet to see progress on two other on two major fronts – the kingdom still does not allow women to drive and continues the controversial practice of requiring women to have male guardians for many of their activities.
A First in Egypt
While Saudi women have to wait until 2015 to vote, Egyptian women have been active participants of the electoral process in their country even during President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, and will again cast their votes, alongside men, in parliamentary and presidential elections to be held over the next six months. But there is a first - Bothaina Kamel, having announced that she intends to run for the country’s highest office, will be Egypt’s first woman to do so.
Even though Kamel’s chances of winning the election are considered slim, that matters little to May Kosba, an Atlas Corps fellow serving with the National Conference on Citizenship of Egypt, currently in the U.S. from Egypt. She welcomes Kamel’s political participation as a healthy sign - one that she says should encourage women to assert themselves and become part of the decision-making process in the country.
“It helps to push the ceiling for women to also think of participating and pursuing elected office”, says Kosba.
Still, by many standards, women in the region face an uphill battle. One of the biggest challenges is what Al-Suwaij calls a deep-rooted political oppression that is reinforced by the region’s culture of male domination. She says opposition to change was challenged in March on International Women’s Day even in Egypt. Al-Suwaij says that when women took to the streets in Cairo demanding their rights they encountered resistance from the very men with whom, a month earlier, they toppled Mubarak in protests in Tahrir Square.
“They told them to go home, now is not your time”, said Al-Suwaij. “Why is it not their time? Was it their time when the revolution was there and you needed them there and now when it’s time for them to enjoy democracy, it’s not their time?”
End in sight?
Kosba hesitates to put a deadline for women to achieve equal standing in Arab countries.
“We don’t do timetables, we have forever”, she says. But, she adds, that doesn’t mean women will wait forever. The Egyptian activist says that there has to be a dialogue with men who are open about allowing women to make their own decisions in Arab society.
“One of the most important things about coexistence is I’m not supposed to talk to women alone,” Kosba told VOA. “I have to talk to men who are willing to help women be more involved in the decision making process.”
Kosba says that one of the first and most critical things to be addressed in this process is the issue of sexual harassment.
“I think what women need right now is respect,” she said.
Kosba also says that in Egypt, many women are reluctant to embrace change for fear of compromising long established values. She explains that there is a pervasive belief among women in the country - they feel it’s “not the right time to pick our battle.” But by allowing thing to remain as they have been, Kosba adds, women are just giving in to their oppressors.