Monday, December 12, 2011

Women's Rights: Bring Them Into Focus

- I've been putting these little italicised fore-notes at the beginning of several posts now; I guess I'll keep the 'tradition' going. The following was written in response to an article in the Saudi English newspaper Arab News ( about women's rights; it won't make much sense unless you read the article first.

To The Editor:

I am a Muslim Saudi woman. Though I am elated at the news of a conference being held on the all-too-needed topic of women's rights here, the content of your article had me doubting whether the conference really accomplished what it set out to do.

Let's start out being positive, though. I must agree with your headline: "Muslims Cautioned Against Looking At Women Through Western Prism". Why are we even looking towards the West for guidance in women's rights? 1400 years ago under the Prophet Muhammad women were granted rights to inheritance, to vote, to equality, to humanity... which women in the mud hovels of the Middle Ages -mired West totally lacked. Now, without a doubt - we need to stop deluding ourselves - we are not following our own religious teachings (when did the Prophet Muhammad prohibit women from riding donkeys?), and we are taking for ourselves the very worst aspect of Western women's "liberation": immorality. The question for Saudis, Arabs and Muslims is: when, where and why did we fall behind? More importantly, how do we now catch up, and improve?

Now, a conference about that would be very interesting.

To continue: I find it staggering that in an article covering a women's rights convention, 5 of the 6 speakers/moderators mentioned are men. The one woman is tucked into a footnote at the end, not even quoted. This is part of the problem: when will men stop speaking for women?
Their endeavors on behalf of women are much appreciated. However, these social problems
will never be solved if they keep listening to no one but themselves, repeating
they've been saying for many years: "All is well". It's not. I'm sure if you asked the average Saudi woman, she would not agree that "all her needs are provided for". Transportation? Nope. Independence? Nope. Right to work? Oh, they're still discussing that. Mentioned in one of the lectures was 'women having illegal sex and getting abortions'. Those women did not
impregnate themselves. As with all problems, the blame cannot be skewed to one
side. We need to stop blaming the women for moral bankruptcy in society. It takes two to tango, as the saying goes.

That said, let's not point fingers at just the men. Women are at fault, too. Many display astonishingly bovine behavior towards very real problems in their own society. Acceptance of the status quo, if they are personally not affected, is rife. I've had people tell me that they are
not affected by the driving ban, as they have drivers: "why should they care?" Many women conduct themselves in a way totally bereft of decorum and dignity, much less their supposed 'faith'; why are women who call themselves Muslim walking around malls in drag queen makeup? This merely lends fuel to excuses to hinder women's rights on the hollow basis of 'preventing immorality'.

Point is, the women are not pristinely innocent creatures either: no one is. What we most need to understand is that these issues in Saudi Arabia - and the world as a whole - are not part of a 'gender war': this is a comprehensive social problem. We need to honestly face it, and ourselves, if we are to go anywhere, and if we are ever to find solutions.

And God, how I sincerely hope we do.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thank You For Giving Me The Vote, King Abdullah. Now Can I Please Have Something To Vote About?

The following is the second of my articles to appear on the Aslan Media website at
It's an alternate form of my below piece, An Overrated Decision.

When I, a Saudi female who lives in the city of Jeddah, first heard the news last month that King Abdullah was going to let women vote, my first reaction was, "vote in what?"

As is well known, the country of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. The king has the final say in everything. There is no parliament, no prime minister, not even a constitution.

I suppose democracy must begin somewhere. But what elections was the king even talking about?

Perhaps he meant municipal elections. Those were held for the second time ever earlier this year. Yet when women went to their municipalities to vote, they were turned away at the polls. These women then launched a protest against their lack of a voice (not to mention the nonsensical ban on allowing them to drive), which I view as part of a larger attempt for Saudi women to gain leverage in a male dominated system and society.

Perhaps the king meant elections for the Shura Council, the "formal advisory body" in Saudi Arabia that in theory has the power to propose laws to the King (but not enforce them). That would be more interesting. About time, too!

But there's something missing here. Did he say anything about women driving? About finally legalizing it? Er… No. Apparently the King is fine with women taking a part in deciding which the (symbolic) road the country should take, domestically and internationally, but not in actually driving on that (physical) road.

In any case, the King’s decree is already beginning to look suspiciously ineffective. The fact is that the next municipal elections are scheduled to be held in 2015 and the Shura Council does not directly effect daily life for Saudis (as mentioned, the council merely proposes, not enforces, laws). We need a decree that would bring a positive, practical change to Saudi women's lives, not just lip-service that sounds good – and that the world's media hail as a major milestone – yet makes no real difference at all in anything but perception.

Don’t forget that just two days after the announcement hailed as a landmark in the progress of women's roles in Saudi society, a Saudi woman who drove was sentenced in court to a flogging of 10 lashes as punishment. Of course, there was an international uproar and the sentencing was eventually overturned. Once again the media talked about a huge step forward for Saudi women! Personally, I do not see the revoking of the sentence as something to be celebrated. It is not like no woman would ever be sentenced for driving again.

My pessimism was reinforced when Crown Prince Sultan died (may God have mercy on his soul) and Prince Nayef was announced next in line to the throne. The septuagenarian Nayef is not known for his support of initiatives advancing democracy or women's rights. On the contrary, he "does not see the need for elections or for female members of the Shura council" – both subjects of the decree the world recently celebrated. Nayef has also stated that women's driving is a "non-issue" and "should be decided by society" – whatever that means. On the ground here in Saudi, any mention of the future possibility for women to drive – not to mention other, more basic issues such as guardianship, unfairness in divorce, and child custody – is met with derision. "You think Nayef will even consider it?"

I don't mean to rain on anyone's parade. In fact, I will more than gladly join the parade when it does come – but I will make sure any celebration I take part in stands for a real achievement.

This story is far from over. Here's hoping for a truly huge step forward for Saudi women, and soon. When that time comes, let's hope it's not limited to just driving a car, but an acknowledgement of just how far Saudi has to go in terms of women's rights. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to recognize that support women's rights does not only integrate seamlessly with the true message of Islam, but with our worldwide mission as humans with consciences.