Recently, Saudi Arabia opened registration for the second municipal elections, initially scheduled for Oct. 31, 2009, but delayed on the grounds that the authorities “needed time to expand the electorate and study the possibility of allowing women to vote.” The first such elections were held in 2005 when women were excluded.
It took a year-and-a-half before the epiphany finally struck and the delay was ended; women, it was decided to the chagrin of human rights advocates, would not be permitted to vote this time either.
Nevertheless, the ban hasn’t swayed a number of intrepid Saudi women from taking to voter registration centers in major cities to push for their right to register to vote.
“You fear God and you love your country. Why won’t you let us participate?” one of the women asked the male officials in charge of a center in the capital city, Riyadh.
“There is no article in the system denying us the right to cast our vote,” proclaimed another.
Laws and acts discriminating against women must end, say the women, particularly since the Kingdom has signed international agreements prohibiting such prejudice.
In Saudi Arabia, my homeland, women are prohibited from traveling or working without the written consent of their male guardians, banned from the ballot box and not permitted to drive.
Two misconceptions vis-à-vis Saudi women are ordinarily mentioned in the Western media. The first is that such sexist practices are relics of the Islamic faith. However, this notion belies well-known historical facts.
During the early centuries of Islam, women were granted the right to participate in the political process and all other aspects of life. However, the current brand of Islam applied in the oil-rich Saudi Kingdom is fueled by an austere, convoluted interpretation of Shari’ah, or Islamic Law, at times at odds with Islam in its pure form.
The other Western misreading of the Saudi social environment is that the government is single-handedly accountable for the ostracization of Saudi women, an ill-informed opinion to anyone familiar with Saudi society.
Men and on occasion women, have been intransigent in their opposition to gender parity, concerned that any hints of compromise, such as allowing women to pilot a car, would open the floodgates of promiscuity in the profoundly conservative Kingdom. As an example, when two young women made attempts this week to register to vote, they were subjected by some of the public to a broad spectrum of insults, ranging from “unoriginal and impure Saudis” to “attention seekers” to “whores.” They were told “to stay home and raise kids,” and in some cases thought to warrant legal prosecution.
What at heart engenders such narrow-minded viewpoints?
As a Saudi Arabian national, I attest to the extremely narrow interpretation of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s actions, called Sunnah, that are inculcated into us from an early age in schools and Friday sermons, and through fatwas (religious rulings) and lectures disseminated through books and AV media. The doctrines promulgated devoted no small part to the subject of women, their rudimentary role in society and the protection of their honor.
Less than a week ago, a woman called a prominent sheikh during his TV show, reporting that her brother had sexually harassed his own daughter. The outcome? Rather than advising the caller to immediately report the sexually abusive father to the police, the cleric spared the father 90 percent of the blame and instead, based on pure conjecture, lambasted the molested girl for the manner in which “she dresses around her father,” for “spending time alone with him” and for all the sexual provocation that her erogenous actions could evoke in the father who, after all, is “a man” with desire.
Compounded by the 2006 Qatif Girl saga, in which a kidnapped and gang-raped Saudi girl was, for having been in a car alone with unrelated male, sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail (later to be pardoned by the King), the sheikh’s response epitomizes the prism through which Saudi women are seen: the presumption of guilt in a wrong committed by man is usually attributed to some woman’s sinful conduct.
Notwithstanding entreaties from women’s rights activists to open up more job opportunities for women, a recent fatwa was issued to render impermissible the employment of women as clerks in supermarkets due to “un-Islamic sex mingling.”
Yet, amid the bleak clouds of deep-seated misogynic societal convictions, strict policing by the religious establishment, and fatwas further curtailing women’s liberties, a ray of sunshine may be working its way to the top.
Having witnessed the far-reaching impact of social media in neighboring Arab countries, Saudi women have begun taking to Facebook and Twitter to make their voices heard.
Saudi Women Revolution (SWR) is a fast-growing women’s rights movement in a culture where women’s rights largely remain an alien concept, asserting time and again their demands work in tandem with Shari’ah Law, while calling for equality with their male counterparts.
For his part, a progressive King Abdullah has exhibited support when, in the face of vociferous outcries from conservatives, he inaugurated King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), the first co-ed institute in the Kingdom.
The future of gender equality in Saudi society therefore rests first and foremost in the hands of its women. To be sure, it will take considerable time and effort to undo decades of rigid interpretation and application of religion, but if you don’t fight for your rights, no one else will.
This round of municipal elections is a good place to start.