First step in a long road for Saudi women
Saudi women had much to celebrate in 2015 as they made significant gains in obtaining an education, economic independence and a fighting chance to have a say in government.
Although reforms have been moving at a snail’s pace, perhaps the most notable advancement implemented in 2015 was women exercising their right to vote in municipal elections. More than 130,000 Saudi women registered to vote and about 950 ran for office. Female municipal council candidates defied the odds and won at least 20 seats throughout the country.
Saudi women, always trying to prove themselves as capable contributors to society despite constant attempts by religious conservatives to limit their roles to domestic duties, demonstrated their commitment to their country with an 80% voter turnout in areas that were least expected, such as the rural regions of Tabuk and Al-Jawf.
Council victories aside, the elections were a test for female voters. If they failed to participate in elections, then the right to vote and run for office would disappear. It would give credence to critics of extending more rights to women that they are not capable of participating in government affairs. Saudi women put that issue to rest with their performances in the voting booth and in their campaigns for office.
Testing women’s ability to contribute to Saudi society seems to be a permanent state, as if when conquering one obstacle they are always faced with the next one. There is the implied threat that Saudi women may forever return to something more “appropriate for our gender” as is said in some conservative circles.
An obvious sign of success in 2015 is that women continued to return from studying abroad with university degrees and a strong desire to find work in government and the private sector.
The King Abdullah Scholarship Programme, which gives a free university education to any Saudi citizen with a good grade-point average (GPA), has opened many doors for women. About 200,000 Saudi students attend universities worldwide with at least 100,000 studying in the United States. About 76% of the students are attending universities through the programme and about 60% of all university graduates are women. They are returning to Saudi Arabia with postgraduate degrees and high expectations.
Unlike the male students from the previous generation who studied in the West but took little of that influence back to Saudi Arabia, returning female graduates are insisting on implementing more efficient and productive Western-inspired programmes and ideas into the workplace.
University degrees, however, have little value if the degree holder can’t get to work. This is by far the biggest failure of Saudi society. The right to drive a car, a campaign among Saudi activists that stalled in 2015 with no apparent prospect of being revived in the near future, is part and parcel of a woman’s ability to work and earn a living.
For many years driving a car was not a priority among Saudi women as they focused on education. That attitude has evolved over the last two years as more university-educated women are having difficulty finding employment because they have no means to get to their jobs. Earning a university degree rings hollow when women are denied the ability to use it.
It helps, though, that women’s dependence on male guardians is beginning to loosen. The Interior and Labour ministries gave women a boost by limiting guardians’ ability to control the lives of the women in their families. Women can now apply for a job, start a business and apply for licences and permits without the permission of their guardian.
The Interior Ministry will issue national identity cards to divorced and widowed women, giving them wide latitude to register their children for school, obtain medical care for them and have access to court and government records.
These moves complement a royal decree issued in June that gave foreign husbands of Saudi women the right to transfer their iqamas to their wives’ names, which reduces the risk of deportation.
Yet for every success there is stagnation. Saudi courts have yet to see the long-promised government overhaul with a codified legal system despite repeated assurances that reform is on the horizon.
Tribal loyalties among judges are still intact, although there have been encouraging signs that things are changing. Female lawyers are now permitted to represent clients and appear in the courtroom and fathers are no longer guaranteed custody of their children in divorce hearings, although women are still a long way off from being viewed as having equal standing as a parent.
Saudi women should not be satisfied with these advances. They have a long road ahead to secure the rights guaranteed women in Islam. Religious conservatives often fail to understand that a stable society means including women, which account for about 50% of the Saudi population, in the decision-making process. Living in a patriarchal system does not mean exclusion from society, nor does it mean ignoring the teachings of the Quran, which grants freedoms to women not enjoyed now.