By Cleo Bergman
A young Saudi woman
Photo courtesy of Walter Callens
Earlier this month, for the first time in Saudi Arabia’s history, 30 Saudi women were appointed to the Shura Council, the kingdom’s top advisory committee. While the council does not have legislative power, they do get to review laws, which brings to question if the country’s policies on women will be affected by the female influence in the council. Historically, women have been at the bottom of the social and political pyramid in Saudi Arabia. Their movements and freedom are monitored and controlled by their male relatives, including fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. Now, with women in the picture of Saudi politics more than any point in its history, what does this mean for the future of women and their rights in this ultra-conservative kingdom?
In order for Saudi women to be able to travel, get an education, or even enter a public hospital, they have to get permission from one of their male relatives. Among these regulations, one particular travelling policy
was updated late last year: now, instead of giving written permission, a male relative would simply receive a text whenever one of his “dependents” left the country. Many were outraged by the move, feeling that restrictions on women were only heightened by this technological invasion of their personal privacy. “It’s good that Saudi women have protested this,” said Mark Weston, author of Prophets and Princes: Saudi Arabia from Muhammed to the Present “but I think if the Saudi women had to choose between: ‘do we have to get male permission each and every time we travel, or can we just get one blanket permission when we leave the country’, they would say ‘yeah, I’d go for the latter’…In context of where they were, it [is] actually a reform. It’s hard for us to look at it that way, but that’s the thing about Saudi Arabia, they move in baby steps.”
For some, the kingdom’s efforts in reforming its policies are nothing more than an attempt to sweep its bigger issues under the rug. “The women’s issue cuts both ways,” said Professor Donna Divine, a specialist in Middle-East politics, “women clearly want more freedom, but controlling their movement and behavior is taken as an important symbol of the regime’s stability and the country’s cultural authenticity. But the problems confronting the regime–poverty, divisions between parts of the country that have never been erased, and the treatment of the Shi’a minority who live in the oil producing areas are not going to disappear. Nor is it likely that the Saudis will succeed in exercising total control over their internet or over women through their use of this kind of modern technology.”
While Saudi women may continue to protest, Weston points out another major factor that could either help or hinder their future: The successor of the royal family. “The throne goes from older brother to younger brother in Saudi Arabia. All of them are sons of the founding king. Eventually, they have to figure out who in the next generation is going to be their king … Even the oldest grandsons are in their 60s now, so the chances of someone in their 40s becoming kind are not very high. At least they can get somebody who is 60 instead of 76 or 89—that would be an improvement. Depending on who becomes the next king, you might see more reforms or fewer reforms. It’s a big decision that’s coming fairly soon.” Currently, Crown Prince Salman (76) is the heir apparent
to King Abdullah (88), who is likely to follow in the king’s footsteps
in cautious reforms and stability.
For a country that is so heavily based on tradition and customs, it seems rather unlikely that there will be much of a difference in how women are viewed in Saudi society, even with these recent political changes. “This regime can secure its stability through a combination of intimidation, violence, religious coercion, and money to extend benefits to as many people as possible,” said Professor Divine, “How long this can last is not known. But the women’s issue is perceived as an instrument to use for regime survival and regime survival of a regime like that in Saudi Arabia is not going to dispense with all the religious customs and traditions it supported in the past. Women may make incremental gains; they may even force the regime into extending more privileges than it might wish to do, but they [women] will always be viewed instrumentally.”
However, as mentioned earlier, generational differences in thought and manner towards women has the potential to expand outside the political and religious realms. “Saudi Arabia is behind all of the Middle East (except for Afghanistan, where the Taliban are). One thing though is that right now, 58% of the people in Saudi colleges are women. And because they have less to do when they are not in school than the men do, they work harder and they’re the better students. Everybody knows this, and everybody knows that the next generation is going to be really different because they’re more educated women and educated men and they’re not going to put up with the stuff that their mothers put up with.”
While Saudi Arabia continues to move in baby steps, today, women are the majority of educated college students in the kingdom, and they are gaining more access to Saudi politics than ever before. Despite these improvements for the women, they are still viewed as a minority within Saudi society due to the kingdom’s strict, traditional background. As the government implements social and political reforms in its attempt to maintain stability, perhaps they should consider the possibility that the answers to the country’s issues are among their women.