News / Middle East

Saudi Women Welcome Suffrage, Keep Eye on Driver's Seat

Saudi woman with cellphones smoke tobacco from a waterpipe as they drink coffee in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 2010 (file photo).
Saudi woman with cellphones smoke tobacco from a waterpipe as they drink coffee in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 2010 (file photo).
Elizabeth Arrott

Saudi women are hailing King Abdullah's promise of expanded political rights, with the hope it is another step toward equality in the ultraconservative kingdom.

The king's announcement that women may run for office and cast votes in the next round of municipal elections, set for 2015, is the latest in a string of reforms -- modest compared to most countries but domestically radical and long opposed by members of the Saudi elite.

The monarch's promises also include their appointment to the largely ceremonial Shura council, an advisory body. Women will not be allowed to take part in municipal elections this Thursday, however, and some Saudi women are continuing to push for other basic freedoms such as the right to drive a car or leave the country without a male relative's permission.

Samar Fatany, a columnist at the Arab News, a daily newspaper in Jeddah, is among those who welcome the upcoming enfranchisement.

"It is a very, very positive step," she said. "It gives us hope [and] really encourages us to work harder for women to assert themselves and to be part of the decision-making process."

Timing of the reforms questioned

The initiative comes as leaders across the Arab world struggle to meet the demands of their people, or risk going the way of the ex-leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Already this year, King Abdullah announced a $130 billion program to boost salaries, build housing and fund other popular measures.

But Basmah Omair, director of the al Sayeda Khadija bin Khawlid Center at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, says it would be a mistake to think the latest move is a result of only the Arab Spring.

"In recent years, you have seen women take leadership positions like the deputy of the ministry of education and vice mayor of Jeddah," he said. "So it's not something [new], but maybe the media is concentrating [on these events] now and that is why they are just thinking of the recent events of 2011."

Fatany attributes recent gains both to the king, seen as a reformer since taking the throne in 2005, and the women who have seized opportunities and served as role models.

The biggest challenge to furthering women's rights, she said, is generalized fear of societal change reinforced by the nation's puritanical clergy.

"Saudi society has been isolated from the rest of the world and, as a result, the majority of the people are reluctant to change," she said. "They are wary of change, thinking that this would erode their values and their customs. The culture of fear of the unknown, fear of being too Westernized or that our values would be compromised, has been indoctrinated in people's minds by hardliners and extremists."

Driving laws challenged

Opposition to change has recently been challenged with some women protesting the ban on their driving. Since June, women across Saudi Arabia have been getting behind the wheel, resulting in numerous arrests and splitting opinion on what the next step should be.

Omair, for example, said that while driving is an issue, it should not be overshadowed by more pressing priorities.

"The fact of women driving is going to take just a few more years probably, to get infrastructure ready, to prepare the women, to open the training centers for women driving," he said. "But I am more optimistic and looking forward to the public transportation."

But even with good public transit, many Saudi women would still find themselves without jobs to go to.

Although females now make up the majority of university students, they represent less than 15% of the workforce -- one of the lowest levels in the world. Strict gender segregation based on interpretations of Islamic law keep many of them out of the workplace, even basic retail services where they might encounter men.

Women must also be accompanied by male relatives in many situations, further hampering freedom of movement.

But Fatany points to recent trends in education that, if nurtured, could bring about more substantial reform.

"The national dialogue that has started, debating issues that were tabooed in the past; scholarship programs that send so many of our students abroad to be also exposed to other cultures," she said. "As a result, the educated elite, the intellectuals or the minority of progressive thinkers have a great role to play in order to influence change and allow our young people to be the engines for a better future."

How fast that change will come and in what form remains unclear. Whether or not Saudi women drive themselves to the polls to cast votes in 2015 might provide an indication.

You May Like

Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Seen as a potential driver of recovery, Cairo’s plan to expand waterway had been raising hopes to give country much needed economic boost More

Ebola Maternity Ward in Sierra Leone First of its Kind

Country already had one of world's highest maternal mortality rates before Ebola arrived, virus has added even more complications to health care More

Malaysia Flight 370 Disappearance Ruled Accident

Aircraft disappeared on March 8, 2014; with ruling, families of 239 passengers and crew can now seek compensation from airline More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Groundbreaking Hand-Painted Documentary About Van Gogh in Productioni
X
George Putic
January 29, 2015 9:43 PM
The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Groundbreaking Hand-Painted Documentary About Van Gogh in Production

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Super Bowl Ads Compete for Eyes on TV, Web

Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 1) is about more than just the NFL's American football championship and big parties to watch the game. Viewers also tune in for the world famous commercials that send Facebook and Twitter abuzz. Daniela Schrier reports on the social media rewards for America’s priciest advertising.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Freedom on Decline Worldwide, Report Says

The state of global freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2014, according to global watchdog Freedom House's annual report released Wednesday. VOA's William Gallo has more.
Video

Video MRI Seems to Help Diagnose Prostate Cancer, Preliminary Study Shows

Just as with mammography used to detect breast cancer, there's a lot of controversy about tests used to diagnose prostate cancer. Fortunately, a new study shows doctors may now have a more reliable way to diagnose prostate cancer for high risk patients. More from VOA's Carol Pearson.
Video

Video Smartphones About to Make Leap, Carry Basic Senses

Long-distance communication contains mostly sounds and pictures - for now. But scientists in Britain say they are close to creating additions for our smartphones that will make it possible to send taste, smell and even a basic touch. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.
Video

Video Crowded Republican Presidential Field Off to Early Start for 2016

It seems early, but the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign is already heating up. Though no one has officially announced a candidacy, several potential Republican contenders have been busy speaking to conservative groups about making a White House run next year. Many of the possible contenders are critical of the Obama administration’s foreign policy record. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid