Saudi Arabia, the King and Women
Many sectors in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were surprised this week by King Abdullah’s decision. In the Shura Council, he gave a short speech focusing almost entirely on one topic: women’s rights. During this speech, he announced that women would be able to join the Shura Council, and run for office in local municipal elections.
Before reiterating what has been said about the announcement being an important and brave step for the most conservative Islamic society, which is indeed the case, it is important to view the issue in a larger perspective than the political level. The King has granted Saudi women genuine status in all fields; in society as a whole.
Over the past few years, a series of legislation and regulations have been issued to either amend or incorporate women’s rights into various fields. This began with women being granted their own identity cards – as in the past they had always been annexed on to male documents, either those of the father or the husband. Subsequently, special universities and colleges were allocated for female education – after women had previously been taught in offshoot branches affiliated to male institutions. More recently, women were granted equal rights to their male counterparts in employment, and were provided with compensation if unemployed. The Saudi King has made it clear that he now stands by women; by literally appearing with them in official photographs, having referred to them in the past in the third person. The King has granted women ‘identity’, where there was nothing to acknowledge them as citizens in the past, and has granted them political rights, something that didn’t even apply to men until a few years ago.
Despite several campaigns witnessed in the Saudi arena against the idea of women’s rights, reform and regulations in favour of women, and against the decisions of the government itself, this did not prevent the King from going down the path of reform. Not one year goes by without a pleasant surprise in this regard, and this week we witnessed the King’s speech before the Shura Council, where he said that marginalizing women was neither acceptable nor permitted anymore, and announced the right of women to participate in the Council and their right to run in municipal elections.
We are talking here about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, not just any country in the world. The issue of Saudi women’s rights to participate in political life, vote, and run for office like their male counterparts was rarely brought up by anyone. On occasions, it was raised timidly by some and with a long preamble to explain their points. Thus the King’s decree was a surprise for everyone, including those who called for the reforms, and some of them quickly jumped to conclusions linking the decision to the Arab Spring. However, such individuals seem unaware of the internal proceedings of Saudi Arabia, for there is no connection between the revolutions in the region and women’s rights. In fact, there have been no popular demands demanding political rights for women to vote, or to stand for elections, or to be represented in the Shura Council.
Most of what was has been said in public consists of hysterical voices opposed to granting women any rights. They have tried to silence other voices in support of women’s rights by reminding them of the old stereotype that a woman’s place is in the home, and that raising children is her only function. Accordingly, we cannot characterize the decree as a response to popular pressure, but rather it was a progressive step that transformed King Abdullah into a genuine man of reform. He reassured his opponents that granting political rights to women does not violate Sharia law, is not in response to internal or external orders, and is in the interests of the country and its citizens. King Abdullah proved that he is not a political game player, seeking to satisfy one category at the expense of others through propaganda or popular gains.
All decrees announced by the Saudi King with regards to women’s rights, and in the political and social field in general, were not easy. They weren’t necessarily popular either, and they did not yield political or personal gains; but they were extremely important decisions. These decrees required the courage of a man who knows he has the confidence of his citizens, including those who may not agree with his actions. This is a King who has issued historic decisions in the past which we all now know to be right, and they will serve the country and society in the long term.