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).
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Analysts Warn of Regional Proxy Conflict in Afghanistan

Analysts warn if Kabul’s neighbors do not start to cooperate, competing desires for influence could deteriorate into a bloody proxy war in the country More

Saudi Intelligence Chief Replaced

Bandar bin Sultan came under criticism for supporting al Qaida, prompting King Abdallah to wrest Syria operations away from him in February, handing them to Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef More

Poetry Magazine editor Don Share talks what makes a good poem with VOA's David Byrd

What makes a good poem? And is poetry as viable an art form as it once was? To find out, VOA's David Byrd spoke to Don Share, the editor of Poetry Magazine. 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.
Google Buys Drone Companyi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X
George Putic
April 15, 2014
In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ray Bonneville Sings the Blues and More on New CD

Singer/songwriter Ray Bonneville has released a new CD called “Easy Gone” with music that reflects his musical and personal journey from French-speaking Canada to his current home in Austin,Texas. The eclectic artist’s fan base extends from Texas to various parts of North America and Europe. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin.
Video

Video Millions Labor in Pakistan's Informal Economy

The World Bank says that in Pakistan, roughly 70 percent work in the so-called informal sector, a part of the economy that is unregulated and untaxed. VOA's Sharon Behn reports from Islamabad on how the informal sector impact's the Pakistani economy.
Video

Video Passover Celebrates Liberation from Bondage

Jewish people around the world are celebrating Passover, a commemoration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. According to scripture, God helped the Jews, led by Moses, escape bondage in Egypt and cross the Red Sea into the desert. Zlatica Hoke reports that the story of the Jewish Exodus resonates with other people trying to escape slave-like conditions.
Video

Video Police Pursue Hate Crime Charges Against Kansas Shooting Suspect

Prosecutors are sifting through the evidence in the wake of Sunday’s shootings in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri that left three people dead. A suspect in the shootings taken into custody is a white supremacist. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, he was well-known to law enforcement agencies and human rights groups alike.
Video

Video In Eastern Ukraine, Pro-unity Activists Emerge from Shadows

Amid the pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, there is a large body of activists who support Ukrainian unity and reject Russian intervention. Their activities have remained largely underground, but they are preparing to take on their pro-Moscow opponents, as Henry Ridgwell reports from the eastern city of Donetsk.
Video

Video Basket Maker’s Skills Have World Reach

A prestigious craft show in the U.S. capital offers one-of-a-kind creations by more than 120 artists working in a variety of media. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports from Washington, one artist lucky enough to be selected says sharing her skills with women overseas is just as significant.
Video

Video UN Report Urges Speedier Action to Avoid Climate Disaster

A new United Nations report says the world must switch from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources to control the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the report (Sunday) following a meeting of scientists and government representatives in Berlin. The comprehensive review follows two recent IPCC reports that detail the certainty of climate change, its impacts and in this most recent report what to do about it. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble has the details.
AppleAndroid