Saudi women on their way to political empowerment: An exclusive report


Wafa Adeel

In a giant leap for women’s participation in governance, women in Saudi Arabia on Saturday started registering for voter IDs. Following a decision passed by the late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud in 2011, women will for the first time be able to vote and contest in municipal elections to be held in December.

Registration of women voters opened across the country today (22nd August) with Madinah and Makkah having started a week earlier to avoid the Hajj rush. Safinaz Abu Al Shamat and Jamal Al Sadi earlier this week became the first Saudi women to get voting rights by registering in the Western provinces.

Around 70 women are looking forward to run for office, while 80 are expected to manage campaigns. Separate polling booths have been set up for women to suit their modesty at the time of identification.

The Municipal council manages budget, urban development and planning among other things.

Fawzia Al Khalid of the King Saud University Riyadh says, “I think there is the realization from different groups, including the conservative groups, that what happened in the past, where their voice was the only representative in society, would no longer continue.”

Supporters hail this as the beginning of the end of a proxy existence of women in public life in Saudi Arabia and a win for the Baladi movement that lobbied the late king for improved women rights and participation in governance.

King Abdullah, or Baba (father) Abdullah as he was fondly called, was a pioneer of women’s rights in the traditionally strict and conservative Saudi society.

After considerable pressure from newly formed groups like Baladi, he started reforms in small phases against increasing friction from hardliners in the Shoura Council. For Saudi women and the government, the road to the polling station has been long.

It was a promising start when in 2009, then Crown Prince Abdullah, managing the duties of the ailing King Fahd, gave the country it’s first female minister in Noura Al Fayaz as deputy minister of education.

Following several cabinet reshuffles, appointment  and sacking of ministers and top clerical positions, the governing bodies of the kingdom were filled by cherry-picked persons who would support reforms, thereby silencing the voices of religious and political dissent. Soon the King introduced a new law that guaranteed 20% women’s participation in the country’s Consultative body, the Shoura Council.

Welcoming the move, 30 women were appointed to the Shoura Council opening up the stage to meaningful discussions on women’s issues. While the council enjoys no legislative powers, it acts as a platform for debate and makes recommendations to the King. An otherwise closed society represented by it’s predominantly “yes men” opened up to allow new modern voices that supported the King on what many called it a crusade.

The youth of the country, surprisingly the heaviest users of social media in the Middle East, took to twitter to voice their support for these reforms, outnumbering the complaints of the old who were simply averse to the idea of change.

In a slow wave of reform, more and more women started appearing at the front line of society. While Saudi women had always been active and hugely successful in businesses as some of the biggest companies across the country have been owned by women, the reforms caused new revolution particularly amongst the middle class working woman.

Banks, malls, hospitals, chain stores and private businesses opened up to women. Soon, women doing front-desk jobs began became one of the most visible changes of the reforms. In a radical departure from tradition, women were now working alongside men at all steps of their career ladders.

An initially squirmy and apprehensive society soon warmed up to the idea of women as more than just the domestic queen. After King Salman’s accession to power, cabinet reshuffles saw the removal of education minister Noura, raising fears among many that the gained momentum might be lost and the scheduled elections of 2015 jeopardized.

A false alarm indeed, as the growth of women’s participation continued and registration for women voters is now finally underway.

Critics however, say that this move is too little too late, and political empowerment is incomplete without other rights like driving, freedom to travel among others. Ali Al Yami of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia sums it the best when he says “Women’s rights will remain elusive at best, as long as discrimination against them is institutionalised and severely re-enforced by the state’s agencies.” Whichever opinion you may endorse, the fact remains, change has come and, hopefully it’s here to stay.