Thursday, November 10, 2011

Saudi Women’s Rights Stuck at a Red Light


Saudi Women’s Rights Stuck at a Red Light

ASMAA AL-MOHAMED
Journalist and Women’s Rights Activist; Online Editor for Al Arabiya; Saudi Arabia


PERHAPS NOWHERE IN THE WORLD do women lead a stranger life than in the
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi women constantly endure being treated like secondclass citizens, even as men refer to them as “well-kept pearls and hidden treasures.”
Despite everything said about the importance of women, women’s rights are still a
chink in the Saudi state’s armor, and one of the most hotly debated, yet murkiest,
topics in the country. It is difficult to even prioritize the long list of challenges facing
Saudi women, which range from their political and legal disenfranchisement, to their
curtailed liberties and restraints imposed by their legal guardians. The humanitarian
crises facing women in Saudi Arabia are extreme and there is often limited recourse
for women who have suffered sexual abuse or rape. However, this article will primarily focus on those offenses that are permissible, not just in practice, but also under the
Saudi legal framework.
Struggling by Neighborhood Standards
Glancing at the countries bordering Saudi Arabia, which share similar customs, traditions and tribal affiliations with the Kingdom, women in the other Gulf Cooperation
Council (GCC) countries enjoy more robust political and civil rights. In Bahrain, for
instance, women have served in parliament and as ministers, whereas Saudi women
still need a mahram (a close male relative such as a father, son or uncle) to accompany
them even to the supermarket. Other GCC countries, meanwhile, have used quota systems to guarantee women a place in parliament, where they mix freely with men
and engage in face-to-face debate, enjoying true equality. Women from the other Gulf
states represent their countries as ambassadors – unaccompanied by male supervisors
– whereas in Saudi Arabia, a woman’s male guardian is required to give signed permission (either open or for a defined period of time) in order for her to travel at all.
There are striking examples of women in the other GCC countries serving as
ministers, such as Kuwait University Political Science Professor Masouma al-Mubarak,
who was the first Kuwaiti female minister (See al-Mekaimi, page 54). She successfully served in a variety of ministry posts, first
as minister of planning, then as minister of
administrative development affairs, then minister of transportation, and finally as minister
of health in the 2007 cabinet. Saudi women,
by comparison, are still not allowed to enter
parliament as anything more than advisors;
they cannot vote, much less serve as representatives. Even stranger, when Saudi men deem it necessary to consult women – generally on the more trivial local or social affairs –  interaction between the sexes occurs
only via video conferencing. The six women who serve as parliamentary advisors, the
only political position women have attained in Saudi Arabia, seem to be there less in a
serious capacity and more as décor

Alyousif attributes the lack of a political role for Saudi women to educational decisions: “Very few Saudi women major in political science, and this major used to be
closed to women. By restructuring some of the universities and providing the major [to
women], we are establishing the beginning of a new era in which young women study politics academically before applying it on the ground.” However, a careful analysis of
the powers female Saudi officials possess shows that their positions are superficial. For
example, Princess Dr. al-Jawhara bint Fahd al-Saud was undersecretary of education for
women’s colleges for 10 years before becoming president of Riyadh University for Women
in April 2007. And yet, in a conference on women’s rights, she told hundreds of women
that as undersecretary she “did not have the necessary powers to make decisions, even
though this position is the third highest ranking in the Ministry of Education.”




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