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

    Clinton, Trump and the 'Woman’s Card'

    Ask supporters of Democratic front-runner in US presidential campaign, and they’ll tell you Republican presidential candidate is playing a dangerous hand

    Russian Censorship Group Seeks Chinese Help to Better Control Internet

    At recent Safe Internet League forum in Moscow, speakers from both nations underscored desire for authorities to further limit and control information online

    Video Makeshift Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Free classes in Islamabad park serve a few of the country’s nearly 25 million out-of-school youths; NGO cites ‘education crisis’

    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.
    Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensionsi
    X
    April 29, 2016 12:28 AM
    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensions

    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Bangladesh Targeted Killings Spark Wave of Fear

    People in Bangladesh’s capital are expressing deep concern over the brutal attacks that have killed secular blogger, and most recently a gay rights activist and an employee of the U.S. embassy. Xulhaz Mannan, an embassy protocol officer and the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban; and his friend Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, a gay rights activist, were hacked to death by five attackers in Mannan’s Dhaka home earlier this month.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.
    Video

    Video West Urges Unity in Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

    The Italian government says a NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July. There are concerns that the number of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked. Western powers say the political chaos in Libya is being exploited by people smugglers — and they are pressuring rival groups to come together under the new unity government. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Russia’s TV Rain Swims Against Tide in Sea of Kremlin Propaganda

    Russia’s media freedoms have been gradually eroded under President Vladimir Putin as his government has increased state ownership, influence, and restrictions on critical reporting. Television, where most Russians get their news, has been the main target and is now almost completely state controlled. But in the Russian capital, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin propaganda.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora