May 17th 2014
A RECENT move to introduce physical education to government girls’ schools met the same response as most attempts to give Saudi women equal rights with men. A group of conservatives protested in Riyadh, the capital, against “Westernising” moves that would lead to adultery and prostitution. Such mores, they argued, have no place in the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad.
But sport looks set to become a fact of life for women in the kingdom. In 2012 two Saudi women took part in the Olympics for the first time, weathering a torrent of abuse. Since last year the authorities have been giving licences to private sports clubs for women, a far cry from 2006 when Lina al-Maeena had to register her ladies’ basketball team in Jeddah as a company. Even in stuffier Riyadh, girls can be seen kicking footballs with their brothers, the hems of their black Abayas trailing in the dust.
Slowly the tide in Saudi Arabia appears to be running in women’s favour. “The Saudi woman’s voice has always been there calling for change,” says Hatoon al-Fassi, a prominent Saudi historian of women in Arabia. “But today it is more apparent and it is getting to the decision-makers.” Though lambasting the lack of equality between the sexes in the kingdom, Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby group, last year referred to “encouraging, modest” reforms for women.
Since taking power in 2005, King Abdullah, the ageing monarch, has given women a bigger role in public life. In 2009 Norah al-Faiz was appointed deputy minister for education, the highest post attained by a woman in government. Last year 30 women took their seats in the Shura Council, a consultative body of 150 members, also appointed by the king. And women are due for the first time to vote and stand in municipal elections—the only ones permitted in the kingdom—albeit that only half the seats are elected and that the councils are pretty toothless.
In the private arena changes are afoot, too. This year Somayya Jabarti became the first female editor of a daily newspaper, the Saudi Gazette. More women are working, including running their own businesses, though the female unemployment rate remains a lofty 32%. The first female-run law firm opened this year, after the authorities lifted a ban preventing women law graduates from practising.
And women are generally more visible, even on the streets of Riyadh, which lies in the heartland dominated by the influence of Wahhabists, who follow an ultra-conservative version of Islam. Since restrictions on women at work have been eased, they operate cash tills everywhere, from lingerie shops to IKEA, a Swedish-founded furniture shop. They take taxis alone and head to the increasing number of facilities dedicated to women, from spas to separate floors of shopping malls.
Women are speaking up, too. Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, a great-granddaughter of the founding king, runs a franchise of Harvey Nichols in Riyadh—and led a team of women to the base camp of Mount Everest to raise awareness of breast cancer. Women have written the most acclaimed Saudi novel of recent years, “Girls of Riyadh”, and directed the first feature film made in the country, “Wadjda”, about a girl in Riyadh who dreams of owning a bicycle to race against a neighbouring boy.
Across the board, Saudi women are pushing for changes to laws in a country where sharia law is imposed by all-male courts. Last year human-rights groups hailed new legislation to criminalise domestic violence, though who is in charge of enforcing it remains unclear. From 2020 identity cards will be mandatory rather than optional for women, who until 2001 were required simply to be listed on their male guardian’s card.
Dainty Steps at a Time
There is still a long way to go. The guardianship rule—under which women must get permission from their husband, father or, less commonly, brother or son, to travel, work or get medical treatment—remains in place, in effect treating half the adult population as minors. Yet women can be held criminally responsible.
“Until [the guardianship rule] goes, all the changes are just a show for outside,” says Aziza Yousef, a professor at Riyadh’s King Saud University. By not tackling the issues head on, some argue that Saudi Arabia is institutionalising segregation, whereby women are still not allowed to be alone with unrelated men in public. Banks have “ladies branches”. Education is single-sex from kindergarten through to doctorates; King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, 80km (50 miles) north of Jeddah, is the sole exception. Even shopping for clothes, women suffer innumerable annoyances. If, for example, they want to try on a garment, they generally have to do so in a toilet, since male-manned shops do not offer changing rooms.
For every step forward, the kingdom appears to take one back. Last month the local media reported that a woman had been sentenced to 150 lashes and eight months in jail for the crime of driving a car. The kingdom still ranks 127th of 136 in the UN’s gender-gap index.
There is no sign of any rethinking of the Wahhabists’ interpretation of Islam and their grip on Saudi morals. The religious establishment, on which the House of Saud relies to sustain its autocratic rule, has embalmed many tribal customs as Islamic and enforces strict interpretations of the religion which are not shared by Muslims in other countries, nor indeed by many in Saudi Arabia.
Instead, change is coming in other ways. One is social media. Newspaper columnists such as Ms al-Fassi and Samar Fatany, a veteran journalist, have been joined by many others online. Eman al-Nafjan runs Saudi woman’s Weblog, which tackles an array of women’s issues. Twitter is full of campaigns for (and against) women’s rights. Ms Yousef uploaded videos to YouTube of herself driving. Serene al-Feteih, a freelance writer and photographer, is just about to launch a chat show in which she and two other women will debate matters seldom aired before, from contentious aspects of divorce to why Islam permits one man to have four wives.
Education is forging change, too. More women than men are now in higher education; women-only universities are popping up everywhere. At least 150,000 Saudi students, a large minority of them women, many of them without a chaperone, are studying abroad. “The young generation is being exposed to other cultures and ways of doing things,” says Haifa Jamal al-Lail, president of Effat University, a private college for women in Jeddah and the first to offer engineering courses to women.
More than anything, change is coming through economics. “Fewer men are happy to come home to their wife with her feet up,” says Khalid al-Khudair, founder of Glowork, a company that runs a website to connect women and employers. “And then they will get annoyed at having to drive her everywhere.” In a branch of a lingerie chain, Nayomi, one of the shops that must now have female staff only, four newly hired women discuss their jobs. “The attitudes of families and men are changing,” says Areej Yaseen. A colleague disagrees: “My father allows me to work only because we need the money,” she says.
Fatwas, such as one issued by Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Luhayan asserting that women would damage their ovaries if they were to drive a car, are the least of the obstacles. A range of other Saudis also resist change. The government is nervous of giving more power to any ordinary people, women included. Many in the clergy think likewise. Some men argue for change, but more simply want to keep women down. And many women themselves resist emancipation. A rare government poll (admittedly, back in 2006) found that 86% of women thought they should not work in a mixed environment; and 89% thought they should not be allowed to drive.
“The first women we got jobs for in a supermarket in Riyadh last year had to be sacked after a week—thanks to the public outcry,” says Mr Khudair. “But soon people got used to the idea.” His company finds jobs for women in call-centres, at home and part-time. And attitudes and practices shift naturally. When companies first employed women, they had separate buildings, entrances and areas to work. Now in many offices men and women mingle. “The law is unclear,” says a male businessman. “We take advantage of that.” Sahal Yaseen, an imam and family counsellor in Jeddah, says divorce is becoming more frequent as women become more assertive and aware of their rights.
Women disagree over how best to win more reforms, though most agree it is still happening too slowly. “Change is most likely to come by working within the system,” says Hoda Abdulrahman al-Helaissi, a Shura Council member. Those sharing her view argue that provocative gestures, such as driving, cause a backlash. They point to places such as Switzerland, where women got the vote only in 1971. “Change is happening rapidly here,” says Ms Helaissi. “It’s just several decades behind.”
Others argue that the country’s old and out-of-touch rulers need to move much faster. “No society changed without laws mandating it from the top,” says Ms Yousef. “People need pushing,” agrees Khaled al-Maeena, a veteran journalist who groomed Ms Jabarti for the editorship of the Saudi Gazette.
Where most Saudi women appear to agree is that their ultimate goal is not to copy Western women. Despite the globalising ways influencing the kingdom, they tend to see their identity as inextricably bound to their country’s as the home of Islam. Most want to abide by the Quran’s description of their role. Many agree that they should dress modestly. Others accept that a woman should ask her husband for permission to travel. Indeed, what Islam really says about women is still, in Saudi Arabia, waiting for a proper debate. Until that happens, change will continue. But slowly.