Many sectors in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were surprised this week by King Abdullah’s decision. In the consultative council, he gave a short speech focused on almost one topic: women’s rights. He announced that she will join the Shura Council and will be permitted to stand for the local and municipal elections.
Before reiterating what has been said regarding the announcement being an important and brave step for the most conservative Islamic society, I have to put it in a larger perspective. On the political level, he granted Saudi women a place in all fields of the society. He changed the social scene.
Over the past few years, a series of legislations and systems were issued to either amend or incorporate a woman’s rights in various fields. It started from granting her own identity — as she has always been subjoined to the man’s ID, whether the father or the husband — to allocating special universities and colleges for her education, after being admitted to branches affiliated to the men’s. And recently she was given equal rights to men in employment and compensation if unemployed. He included her in a large program to send male and female students to study abroad. Furthermore, the Saudi monarch himself made it clear when he said he stands by women by literally appearing with them in official pictures. In other words, this King supported women against many religious and conservative voices. From granting her ‘identity’ to granting her political rights, something which hadn’t even been given to men until a few years ago.
We shouldn’t underestimate the campaign witnessed in Saudi recently against giving women rights and reforms. Now, the King has proved he is not going to stop reforming. In his speech before the Shura Council, he said that marginalizing women was neither accepted nor permitted anymore.
We are talking here about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the most closed society, not any other country in the world. Touching on the Saudi woman’s right to participate in political life and be given similar voting and nomination rights as the man was rarely debated except by a few liberals. Accordingly, it was a surprise for everyone, including those who called for the reforms and some of them quickly jumped to conclusions by linking the decision to the Arab Spring. There is no connection between revolutions in the region and women’s rights. Actually, there are no popular demands for granting political rights for women as to vote, or to stand for the elections or to be represented in the Shura Council.
Most of the popular calls were just hysterical voices that stood in the way of granting women any rights. They tried to put off the other sounds that called for supporting women rights accusing them of being part of a plot by the West. The loud voices here claim a woman’s place is at home, and raising children is her only job. Accordingly, we cannot characterize the move as a response, but rather, a progressive step that turned King Abdullah into a genuine man of reforms. To calm the opposition to his move he assured them that giving political rights to women does not violate the sharia (Islamic law) and it is not a response to interior or exterior dictations.
All decisions announced by the Saudi monarch in the field of women’s rights, and in the political and social field in general, were not easy at all. They weren’t popular as well and they did not have political or personal gains; but they were gravely important decisions. They were not necessarily popular decisions but he himself is a popular king and brave one. Now, it takes a king to put women behind the driving seat, in a country where driving a car is a monopoly for men.
(The writer is a General Manager of Al Arabiya. This article was first published in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on Sept. 27, 2011 and translated from Arabic by Abeer Tayel.)