Women's rights gain focus in the Kingdom

Published: Jun 15, 2010 15:40 Updated: Jun 15, 2010 15:40 

After years of stymied efforts, reform in Saudi Arabia is focused on women's 

A recent survey by the Researchers Center for Women's Studies in Riyadh 
examining Saudi newspapers and websites showed that from mid-January to 
mid-February 2010 some 40 percent of articles in print media and 58 percent of 
articles on websites addressed women's issues.

Empowering women has become a priority for local activists and various 
initiatives are springing up to secure basic women's rights. The most recent 
and ambitious of these efforts is a national campaign, driven by local actors, 
calling for women's participation in municipal elections scheduled for autumn 

Prominent human rights activists, women's rights activists, writers and elected 
municipal council members are spearheading this national campaign for electoral 
participation, which was launched in March 2010. The goal is to coordinate 
activities on this issue throughout the Kingdom, including advocacy and media 
coverage, public meetings and speeches, writing to officials and training 
candidates. The Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs has not yet ruled on 
the issue of allowing women to vote or to register as candidates.

The position taken by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah on 
fostering the role of women in Saudi society has created an opening for such 
initiatives. In February 2009 the king appointed a woman to be deputy minister 
of education, the highest public office in the country to be held by a woman so 
far. A few months later, a member of the Senior Religious Council was removed 
from his post after condemning King Abdullah University of Science and 
Technology's co-ed environment.

In December 2009, Lama Al-Sulaiman was the first woman to win a seat in the 
Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Jeddah and became the vice chairman of the 
most prestigious business organization in the country. Following that, the 
Ministry of Commerce and Industry appointed four women board members to CCIs: 
Faten Bundaqji and Aisha Natto in Jeddah, and Hana Al-Zuhair and Samira 
Al-Suwaigh in the Eastern Province.

Taking into consideration the social and religious restrictions on women in the 
society, Saudi businesswomen have made major strides in the last few years 
toward breaking down barriers and gaining legislation that created a less 
restrictive business environment.

For instance, in 2008 Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, the governor of Makkah, modified 
Article 160 of the Labor Law, which prohibited men and women from interacting 
in a business environment. The Labor Ministry also revised labor laws in 2008 
in order to give women the choice to work. Women no longer require a male 
guardian's approval to get or leave a job. In the same year, authorities also 
reversed a ban on women staying in hotels alone.

A new law is expected to give women the right to travel abroad without a male 
guardian's approval and the ability to use their national identification cards 
to travel to Gulf Cooperation Council states.

Among many individual initiatives related to women's rights is a campaign 
called "Where are my rights?" headed by Khloud Al-Fahad, a businesswoman from 
Alkhobar, who seeks to educate women about their basic rights and equality 
between the sexes via publications, a website and frequent media coverage.

Suad Al-Shamary, the first women lawyer in the Kingdom, has pursued many cases 
related to violations of women's rights to divorce and protection, childcare 
and support, and compensation for injury. In cooperation with other lawyers, 
she is currently pushing for legislation to set the age for legal marriage in 
order to avoid the marriages imposed on young girls. Other initiatives include 
establishing centers to protect victims of domestic violence as well as 
campaigns on divorce rights, family laws and the rights of women married to 
non-Saudis. Most women's rights initiatives are currently headed by individuals 
rather than associations due to the heavy restrictions on civil society 
organizations in the Kingdom.

The growing activism of women - spurred in part by their awareness of the 
greater involvement in public life of women in neighboring states such as 
Bahrain and Kuwait, as well as attention from international figures such as 
Yakin Ertürk, Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on 
Violence Against Women - have prompted tense debates between traditional 
ultra-conservative religious leaders and an increasingly outspoken liberal 
intellectual elite. Among the debated issues are gender interaction in schools 
and colleges, women's sports, participation in elections for chambers of 
commerce and municipal councils, women's driving, male guardian sponsorship, 
domestic violence, definition of marriage age and inheritance laws.

Conservative leaders still enjoy influence and have been able to slow many 
liberal initiatives undertaken by the Cabinet to expand women's role in 
government and to allow them entry into new sectors of public life. But while 
women face a long road to achieve their full rights in Saudi Arabia, as long as 
the King continues to support moderate change and women rights activists remain 
active, gradual and sustainable reform can take place.

- Jafar Al-Shayeb is a Saudi writer, human rights activist and Chairman of the 
Qatif Municipal Council. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News 

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