After years of futile efforts, Saudi Arabia, the reform process begins to focus on women’s rights. A recent survey conducted by the Centre for Research on Women (Markaz al-Mar’a Dirasat Bahithat them) in Riyadh, Saudi analyzing newspapers and websites, has shown that by mid-January to mid February 2010, about 40 % of articles in print and 58% of those published online, have treated women’s issues. Empowering women has become a priority for local, and there are many initiatives that are emerging to guarantee their basic rights. The most recent and ambitious of these efforts is a national campaign, led by local actors, in favor of women’s participation in the upcoming municipal elections to be held in autumn 2011.
Important promoters of human rights activists defending women’s rights, writers, and elected members of municipal councils are working to make this national campaign to promote women’s electoral participation, which began in March 2010. The objective is to coordinate the actions of the activists on this issue throughout the Saudi kingdom, through activities such as advocacy and media coverage, public meetings and debates, writing to the authorities and preparing candidates. The Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs has not yet decided on the issue of women voting or the possibility for women candidates.
The relatively liberal position taken by King Abdullah to support the role of women in Saudi society has created a certain scope for such initiatives. In February 2009, the king appointed a woman vice-minister of education. It is the highest ever role played by a woman in the country so far. Some months later, a member of the Religious Council of Elders was relieved from his post for criticizing the mixed environment, where students mix of both sexes, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. In December 2009, Alsulaiman Lama was the first woman to obtain a place at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) in Jeddah, becoming vice-president of the country’s most prestigious economic organization. After that, the Ministry of Commerce has appointed members of the directions of the CCI four other women: Faten Bundaqji and Aisha Natto in Jeddah, and Hama AlZuhair and Sameera AlSowaigh in Eastern Province.
Taking into account the limitations imposed on women by society and religion, the Saudi business women have achieved important successes in recent years towards a reduction of these barriers and enabling legislation to create an environment less restrictive in affairs. For example in 2008, Prince Khalid Alfaisal, Governor of Mecca, amending Article 160 of the Labor Law that forbade men and women to interact in the work environment. The Ministry of Labor also revised in 2008 labor laws to allow women to choose to work. Now women no longer need approval by a male guardian to start or leave the profession. During the same year, the ministry has also removed the prohibition for women to stay alone in the hotel. A new law should allow women to then travel abroad without the approval of a guardian, and give them the opportunity to travel with their national identity documents in countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Among the many individual initiatives undertaken to promote women’s rights is a campaign called “Where are my rights?”, Led by Khloud Alfahad, a businesswoman of Khobar (Eastern Province), which seeks to educate women about their fundamental rights and gender equality through various publications, a website and a good coverage by the media. Suad Alshamary, the first woman lawyer in the kingdom, has followed numerous cases related to violations of the right to divorce and legal protection, custody of children, and compensation for injury. Along with other advocates, is pushing for legislation requiring the minimum legal marriage age, thus reducing the barbaric ritual of forced marriages of young girls. Other initiatives include the establishment of centers to protect victims of domestic violence, as well as awareness campaigns on the rights to divorce, family laws, and intermarriage with non-Saudi nationals. The majority of these initiatives are in fact driven by individuals rather than groups, because of the severe restrictions imposed on civil society organizations in the Kingdom.
The growing activism of women – encouraged in part by their awareness that women have greater involvement in public life in neighboring countries such as Bahrain and Kuwait, but also by the attention from international figures like Yakin Ertürk, Special Rapporteur on violence against women to the UN Human Rights Council – has resulted in a tense debate between traditionalists and ultra-conservative religious leaders, liberal and intellectual elite and that is expressed in an ever more explicit. Among the topics under discussion are the interaction between the sexes in schools and universities, sports for women, participation in elections to municipal councils and chambers of commerce, the ability to drive, the issue of male protection, domestic violence, setting a minimum age for marriage and inheritance laws.
Conservative religious leaders still have a big influence and were able to slow down many of the initiatives undertaken by the government to expand the role of women in decision-making and allow them to open up new areas of public life. But it is true that women still have a long road to get full rights in Saudi Arabia, however, until the king will continue to support a turning moderate and women’s rights activists continue to be active, a gradual reform and sustainable development can take place.