Saudi Women Speak Out About Achievements and Aspirations

Tuesday 20 March 201811:55 am
Although many new laws addressing women's rights were enacted in Saudi Arabia within a relatively short period of time, women's reality has not drastically changed as implementation takes time. For one, last September's decision to allow women to drive has not yet come into effect. Gender segregation policies are still enforced, even inside homes. The same old mentality is still dominant in so many life aspects. It is undeniable that Saudi Arabia has come a long way in women's rights recently. And with almost one third of the Saudi population below the age of 30, radical change seems to be inevitable. In 2015, Saudi women were allowed to work in mixed gender spaces as 30 female members were appointed in the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia. Women were also allowed to run for municipal elections and senior positions at the Council of Saudi Chambers. Last year was marked by a flurry of decisions in Saudi Arabia; the role of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice was diminished, while women were allowed to attend concerts and football matches, and promised to be permitted to drive starting next June. What has been achieved looks promising, yet the anticipated more fundamental changes are what truly matter. "Saudi Arabia has long been known as one of the world's most restrictive environments for women, where they could not travel alone, hold a wide range of jobs, show their hair in public or drive. That is beginning to change," reads an article in the New York Times published last December, highlighting that a "series of recent decisions by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country's young, de facto ruler, could revolutionize the lives of Saudi women". "But how much these dizzying decisions will affect individuals will depend on several factors, including where they live, their age, their own beliefs and the willingness of their male relatives to give up the control that many consider a religious prerogative." Princess Reema bint Bandar, the president of the Saudi Federation for Community Sports that manages sports-related activities, believes it all comes down to the big picture rather than small gains in the battle for women's rights in Saudi Arabia. "We believe we can do this. The presence of women at stadiums, allowing them to drive and attend concerts, that's all great but it's not the main goal," she said during a seminar held by the Atlantic Council in Washington. "There is already work being done in relation to deeper causes, including securing women in their houses and enabling them to work in any field in a typical male-dominated society," bint Bandar added. "These things will be more dynamic when the discussion over women's rights is shifted towards what is more than just allowing them to drive." She also cited domestic violence, saying it is a very serious issue that will be addressed through persistent efforts. Raseef22 has interviewed five women, including feminists who assessed the progress made in women's rights in Saudi Arabia and expressed their aspirations.

Incapacitated and Impaired

Sohila Zein Al-Abedin Hamad, a Sharia professor and a member of the Saudi National Society for Human Rights "In 2017, many decisions were issued in favor of the woman, but I still wish some of the systems and laws that treat the woman as an incapacitated person could be rescinded. Among those rules is the compulsory approval of a guardian for a woman to issue a passport or renew it. This is no longer acceptable. The wife is still attached to her husband in many civil systems and cannot be independent." "Also, a guardian's approval is a mandatory step in order for a woman to be released from jail. Unfortunately, this is still ongoing and cannot remain as it is. The law considers the woman incapacitated, unlike the man who go out of jail upon serving his sentence. Someone has to vouch for the female inmate by signing her release document, regardless of her crime. Unfortunately, she is deemed an adult while being punished and she is treated as a minor after serving her sentence. This is an unacceptable contradiction; she has the right to be released right away. Putting this down to fear of the prospect that she would be assaulted by her family is unjustified. There has to be a solution for this problem." "When a man commits a murder, all his tribe would gather to collect blood money which could amount for tens of millions of riyals. They would celebrate his release by holding banquets. As for the woman, the least crime she would commit -- one that her family might be the reason for, or something that she did not do to begin with -- will make her suffer for the rest of her life. Even if she is guilty, she cannot keep paying the price for good. We are in a Muslim country, how can we treat women pursuant to the laws of Jahiliyyah [pre-Islamic times]?"

Age of Majority

Hatoon Al-Fassi, a women's rights activist and a history professor at King Saud University "We need to be objective in our demands and admit that 2017 was positive in terms of restoring wasted rights. The Saudi woman has to revel in these achievements... she needs some time to be an integral part of the society and be accepted by everyone." "This does not mean that we overlook the rest of the demands... the achievements of last year will have no impact or importance unless other issues of discrimination are addressed. On top of these issues are women's age of majority, her eligibility to be released from jail after serving a sentence and the complete elimination of guardianship." "We have demanded that women get appointed in decision-making positions. But this is still unattainable. Indeed some good steps were taken but we are not quite there yet. We still have no female ambassador or minister." "However, we have to think the glass is half full and seek to fill the empty half. No one foresaw what has been achieved. Apparently there is a new vision based on a conviction that there is a crisis that has to be resolved." "We kept calling for years for what has been achieved, yet driving was not seen as a priority. Now there is a notion that lifting restrictions imposed on women is an urgent inevitable necessity. We as activists believe that development is important and necessary, and now it has started to happen because a political decision maker has looked into our demands with an open mind."


Sukina Meshekhis, a writer and a TV presenter "I do not regard what has been accomplished for Saudi women of late as a big leap. Appointing a woman, Tamader [bin Youssef] Al-Rammah, as Deputy Minister of Labor was the most important. Apart from that, we are still in the same area." "The most important development in my opinion was the amendment of the Minister of Justice's laws. The house of obedience [which forces a wife to return to her husband's home against her will] has been rescinded; this was an important decision. Another significant step was upholding the annulment of a [marriage] contract without khul, which forces the woman to pay an awful lot of money to the husband in return for her freedom. There is no doubt that there is development in legal issues with regard to women." "Moreover, there is more freedom for the woman... the state is also more interactive when it comes to women's rights these days; she can work without the approval of her guardian and that is a good thing." "A lot of things happened and they were good, but have not been activated yet such as driving." "We hope the change will happen in 2018 by dropping guardianship over the woman completely." "From my perspective, we need to focus more on what King Salman says. He said 'the woman and the man are equal' yet we still see substantial gender discrimination. A woman cannot deal with many civil services. For example, I cannot issue my own passport by myself; a guardian of mine has to give me his approval first. Traveling is also contingent on a document that bears his signature. I hope the woman is actually equal to a man." "The guardianship has to be absolutely revoked and the woman becomes entitled to issue all her identification documents by herself without referring to a male guardian, and also to travel at the age of 18 exactly like a man."

The Harassment Law First

Mariam Al-Gahny, a journalist at Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper "What has been lately accomplished within a short period of time has instigated a transition in the Saudi women's life and the society. We hope we will not stop here, and get to see Saudi women in leading roles like men, especially in positions that are relevant to women's issues. For instance, if an obstetrics and gynecology hospital found a qualified female candidate specialized in this field, I believe she would deserve this job more than a man. Other forms of progress would be giving female Sharia and law graduates the opportunities to work at Saudi courts, casting light on the achievements of female Saudi scholars abroad, enforcing strict laws on sexual harassers whether men or women, keeping up with the social changes that the Saudi society has been witnessing, reconsidering the retirement age for women and shrinking the optional early retirement to allow unemployed female graduates to work."

We Want Bigger Strides

Doctor Soheir Al-Gashy, physician in obstetrics and gynecology "It is true that important things have changed, but in my opinion they are not fundamental; we are still in need for what truly changes our reality. Driving, entering stadium and attending concerts are not the kind of things we as women were looking for. Indeed, they are important but not priorities." "As a doctor some cases leave my heart aching. Therefore, the decision to revoke the mandatory approval of the husband for his wife to receive treatment was important, but was not a priority even though it saves many women's lives." "We need to consider more important issues, dropping the guardianship in particular because when that happens, all other obstacles will be removed...this law perceives the woman to be an incapacitated individual who a man has to be responsible for." "I am optimistic and believe the best is yet to come. The small strides have to be followed by bigger strides. We will be waiting for them."
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