Saudi Women Slowly Advance Cultural Change

Henry Ridgwell

In recent months there have been eye-catching campaigns by women's groups in Saudi Arabia over issues such as the right to drive.  And there have now been some minor changes in the women's employment picture.  But that does not necessarily indicate the first stirrings of a Saudi "Arab Spring."

This year something new has appeared on the streets of Saudi cities, female shop assistants.

For now, they're only found in lingerie stores.  King Abdullah signed a decree to change the law after years of protest by Saudi women, over awkward encounters with male salesmen.

"The decision makes it more comfortable for women to have privacy, and women can speak to the saleswoman and explain their needs better. At the same time the female staff connect with women clients better than men. It avoids embarrassment," a lingerie shop assistant noted.

It may seem like a big step, but the vast majority of Saudi women are still forbidden from working. The strict guardian system requires all women to seek the permission of a close male relative to travel, to work, even to have some types of surgery.

Professor Madawi al-Rasheed, of Kings College London, says the place of women in Saudi society is rooted in the strictly religious nature of the state.

"Religious nationalism tries to create the kingdom of God on earth," said al-Rasheed.  "And by doing that they use women because they are the visible sign of this nationalism, for two reasons: women are responsible for reproducing the nation physically and also reproducing it socially and culturally."

On the surface, those cultural norms appear to be shifting.  In recent months increasing numbers of women in cities like Riyadh are defying decades of tradition by getting behind the wheel.  So far, authorities have reacted cautiously.  Police generally turn a blind eye unless the act is being filmed.

So are these the first rumblings of a revolution in women's rights?

"Absolutely not," noted al-Rasheed.  "What we have seen is minor protests that are co-opted by the state such as the lingerie incident or the driving incident.  They are used in order to show that 'we have mobilization,' in order to show how reformist it is against the background of a conservative tribal society.  So these kind of minor gains that women have unfortunately are being used for purposes beyond women."

In September of last year, King Abdullah signed a decree allowing women to run and vote in municipal elections. Al-Rasheed says the reforms are an attempted distraction by the government at a time when other parts of the Arab world are witnessing uprisings.

"What we are seeing at this stage is minor protest and separate battles raging in Saudi Arabia," added al-Rasheed.

While some of those battles are being won by women, analysts say the lack of civil society in Saudi Arabia means these are not the first stirrings of a revolution.

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