Saudi Arabia’s Suffragettes

In the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where women are rarely cited for their triumphs, the suffragettes are slowly but surely making ground.

Four years after the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud’s historic ruling that women would be granted the right to vote and to register as candidates in municipal elections, Saudi Arabian women have begun their enrolment.

Local media reports estimate that 70 women plan to register as candidates, and another 80 as campaign managers in the elections this December.

“The participation of the Saudi women in the municipal elections as voters and candidates was a dream for us,” businesswoman Jamal Al-Saadi, one of the first women to register to vote, has told the Saudi Gazette.

“The move will enable Saudi women to have a say in the process of the decision-making.”

Although the King’s decision was seen foremost as a response to the pro-democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring, the persistence and tenacity of Saudi women in leading an internal campaign for women’s empowerment should not be overlooked.

Dr Hatoon al-Fassi, Associate Professor of women’s history at King Saud University, has been at the forefront of this campaign.

She grew up in the 60s and 70s, a period of relative liberalisation in Saudi Arabia before the retrenchment of the 80s, and believes that sustained pressure from Saudi women within has played a significant part in the historic ruling.

“This wouldn’t have been possible if not for women’s mobilisation from within,” she told the Guardian earlier this month.

“We’ve been campaigning tirelessly to claim our rights.”

Saudi Arabia is not praised for its treatment of women. It ranks 130 out of 142 on the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Gender Gap Index.

The norm of guardianship, which dictates that women must get permission from a male family member – husband, father, brother or son – to travel, work or even receive some medical treatments, remains preeminent.

Women, both foreign and local, are legally obliged to follow a modest dress code in public, often donning the long, cloak-like abaya, and a headscarf.

And although there is no written legislation that explicitly prevents women from driving, they are not allowed to apply for a driver’s licence, which effectively makes it illegal, or at the very least, culturally unacceptable, for them to drive.

The prevalence of these customs that curtail the rights and capacities of Saudi Arabian women have their historical roots in the founding of Saudi Arabia as a modern nation-state.

In 1932, following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Saudi Arabia was established as an autocratic, monarchical nation-state based on an 18th century pact between the ruling Saudi dynasty and a group of clerics who abided by an ultra-conservative sect of Islam called Wahhabism, founded by Ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

The enduring legacy of this alliance has meant that Saudi Arabia’s laws have traditionally been based on Wahhabism’s strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic, law.

This interpretation is thought to have been hugely influential in limiting the autonomy of women in Saudi society: prescribing sex-based segregation based on the vague legal concept of ‘shielding from corruption’ (Darʾ al-fasād), and also the system of guardianship, which is based on a Qur’anic verse that ostensibly affirms women’s ‘lack of capacity’ (ʿadam al-kifāʾah).

However, the women’s movement in Saudi Arabia, active since the 1960s, has persistently fought against such patriarchal norms.

Al-Fassi insists, “the Saudi woman’s voice has always been there calling for change. But today it is more apparent and it is getting to the decision-makers.”

In June 2011, a group of Saudi women started the “Women2Drive” campaign, encouraging women to post photos and videos of themselves driving on social media in protest of repressive regulations forbidding them from taking to the wheel.

While the campaign was not considered a widespread success, three months later King Abdullah announced the new set of reforms in which women were given the right to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections.

He also announced plans to appoint women to the Majlis Al-Shura, an advisory council that informs the monarchy on public policy – Saudi Arabia’s version of a legislature.

“We refuse to marginalise women in [Saudi] society,” he declared in his address to the Shura.

In February of 2013, thirty women were sworn in to the 150-person council.

Despite these legislative changes, some remain cynical about the extent to which the right to vote will empower Saudi women.

It has been argued that the guardianship rule remains the most significant barrier to women’s liberation in Saudi Arabia.

Professor Aziza Yousef, who was an active participant in the Women2Drive campaign, has said, “Until [the guardianship rule] goes, all the changes are just a show for outside.”

Amnesty International’s Karen Middleton is also cautious not to overstate the significance of the ruling, saying, “Let’s not forget that Saudi Arabian women won’t actually be able to drive themselves to the voting booths as they’re still completely banned from driving.”

It is not disputed that there remain significant barriers to gender equality in Saudi Arabia.

However, as insignificant as this ruling may seem in light of the country’s systematic discrimination of women, it is a step forward nonetheless, and it should be celebrated within the context of Saudi Arabian suffrage, where, as Al-Saadi reminds us, “We are just at the beginning of the road.”

As published in Contribute Magazine (The University of Queensland’s United Nations Association’s annual publication), August 2015.

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