By Samar Fatany
08 March, 2014
Today Saudi women celebrate International Women’s Day with a strong determination to influence change and serve their sisters who suffer from discrimination and abuse. However, it is no use celebrating this day with empty speeches and flowery words. Women activists should reflect upon their role as community leaders and ask themselves if they doing enough to expose those who stand against progress, and why they have not been effective in ending discriminatory laws and regulations that have kept us behind the more advanced countries of the world.
The great support of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah for women has created a sense of optimism and encouraged public demands to end discrimination against women. However, women are still struggling to change legislation and legal procedures so that their rights will be protected and to address the discriminatory rulings that are a cause of pain to many who are still suffering across the nation. The appointment of women to the Shoura Council and their continued demands to modernize government laws and eliminate social barriers has given women more hope. Nevertheless, we have to admit that progress is still slow and we need to mobilize women in all sectors of society to address our social and political needs.
There are still many women who have little or no knowledge about their religious rights or about state laws. Many are complacent and even afraid to ask for their basic rights. Extremists and ill-informed scholars have twisted facts and made women subservient to their male guardians. Progressive women today should confront this negative mentality through proper religious education that recognizes the true teachings of Shariah which gave women the right to own property 1,400 years ago much before their European sisters who were only entitled to do so in the 19th century.
The call to support the empowerment of women in Saudi society is a cry for change. Qualified woman have a duty to help society evolve and recognize the need to support women who may be isolated and unaware of a better way of life. They must strive to remove the suspicions of those who are against modernization and progress. Citizens need to understand that it is not un-Islamic to adopt a modern lifestyle that can serve the modern-day needs of women at work and in their homes.
Women activists continue to demand the elimination of the male guardian law that imposes absolute male control over women, depriving them of their basic rights to manage their affairs and live the life they choose to lead. According to the law, a male guardian controls a woman’s right to education, employment, the use of transportation, litigation, medical treatment, the holding of ID documents and issuance of passports, the execution of private and governmental contracts, and discharge from rehabilitation or detention institutions.
Domestic abuse and violence against women is prevalent in our society due to the absence of legal mechanisms that can offer sustainable protection for women and children who are the helpless victims of abuse. It is time for the government to impose a strong personal status law that protects the rights of women and grants them the right of self-determination. It is no longer acceptable to allow child marriages, arbitrary divorce, confinement and absolute male domination over women in this day and age.
The citizenship law that deprives women of the right to pass their citizenship to non-Saudi husbands and their children is another example of discriminatory laws. The retirement regulations for women stipulating that a women cannot have her retirement benefits if her husband is also retired is also discriminatory. Laws governing civil societies need to be amended in order to grant legal permits for social institutions that can protect the rights of women and support the empowerment of women nationwide.
The right to drive is a basic right. In the absence of public transportation, women are confined to the four walls of their homes and are unable to practice their right of movement. There is no justification in ignoring this legitimate right at both religious and social levels.
Government reforms should safeguard women’s welfare. It is important to provide them with the basic resources, skills and opportunities in order to advance their careers and guarantee them a say in matters that affect their lives, families and communities.
What is needed is a push for a paradigm shift in attitude towards women. It is important to address the social conflict between the progressives and the extremists who advocate the unjustified discrimination against women in society. The negative attitude towards women remains a cause of public discontent and a source of frustration to many citizens in our society today.
The delay in addressing the rights of women is detrimental to our progress and it compromises the future of the new generation of women. The failure to develop women’s potentials and neglecting to grant them their due rights as citizens are a waste of valuable resources and a great loss to our country. Let us celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day with a renewed commitment to mobilize all efforts to grant women their full rights without discrimination. Our country will not develop without the full participation of women and the elimination of obstacles that stand in the way of women’s empowerment.
Samar Fatany is a radio broadcaster and writer.