First Published: 2009-03-06

Saudi women savour glimmer of freedoms

Women activists see King Abdullah’s hand opening door for them while simultaneously holding back clerics.


Middle East Online

Saudi women rise up…in baby steps

RIYADH - It is not exactly Riyadh Spring, but Saudi Arabia's first female minister and the free mixing of the sexes at a recent conference are giving Saudi women hope that some of the world's tightest restrictions on their gender may be easing.

In a sweeping government shakeup last month, King Abdullah named Norah al-Fayez deputy education minister in charge of women's education, the first time a woman has been given a ministerial post in the country.

Also last month, a princess called publicly for women to be able to drive their own cars.

And at a regional conference on child abuse in a Riyadh hotel, with Abdullah's daughter Princess Adela presiding, there was virtually no barrier to prevent the more than 1,000 men and women present from mixing.

"That was a very very big step for the leaders," said Fouziyah al-Ayoumi, who campaigns against violence against women in the eastern city of Dharan.

In other countries such moves would be minor, but in Saudi Arabia, where arch-conservative clerics set the tone of law and policy -- especially regarding women -- they are being hailed as revolutionary.

Saudi women activists speak hopefully and see King Abdullah's hand opening the door for them while simultaneously holding back the clerics.

"I have the feeling that King Abdullah wants this change," said Ayoumi.

But success is not a given, activists say. In his shakeup, the king targeted the clerics' power base in the justice and education systems.

But some doubt that the new progressive ministers will be able to overcome the entrenched bureaucracy as well as general Saudi male opposition to giving women more freedoms and putting them in positions of power.

According to French researcher Amelie Le Renard, the women's movement in Saudi Arabia has two very divergent tracks.

Some leading activists aim to break down barriers between the sexes.

But Le Renard said that others, including many young educated women, prefer the expanding equal-but-separate structure, where women have their own parallel structures to men -- a distinctly "Islamic women's rights" view.

This includes women-only bank branches, hotels and shopping centres, and strict women's sections taking care of women's affairs in government departments and corporate offices.

"In general young women in Riyadh really want to work," she said. "Segregation is not their main problem... Some of them are really for segregation," said Le Renard, a PhD candidate at Sciences Po in Paris.

In addition, for some women's rights supporters, the king's changes did not go far enough and leave the effort for more women's freedoms vulnerable.

Abdulaziz al-Sowayegh, a former member of the consultative Majlis al-Shura council, pointed out that in his shakeup, the king did not name any women to the 150-member council. Instead, six women have observer and consultant status.

"It's like avoiding putting women in the majlis. They are not full members, they don't have a vote. They will only be consulted on women's issues like feeding babies," he said.


Mixed verdict by Israeli court for settlers who burned Palestinian teen alive

Syria regime denies chemical weapons use

Erdogan: Turkey will not apologise to Russia

Iran pilgrims break through Iraq border fence

Tunisia olive production at risk of halving by 2030

UAE says ready to commit ground troops in Syria

3 Saudi soldiers killed on Yemen border

Syrians negotiate rebel exit from Homs

Frustration grows as Tunisia keeps border shut over deadly blast

France says cooperation with Syria not possible under Assad regime

Iran: Saudi plan for Syria ignores Vienna agreements

Iraq PM says country has sufficient forces to fight IS

Kuwait names new acting Oil Minister in cabinet reshuffle

Number of ISIS executions hits more than 3,500 in Syria alone

‘Russia’ air strikes kill at least 18 civilians in Ariha town in Syria

EU offers Turkey cash, closer ties at migration summit

Saudi women begin first-ever campaigns for public office

Bashir takes another step on path of rapprochement with Gulf countries

Iran wants closure of nuclear probe in order to implement deal

Iran General ‘seriously wounded’ in rocket attack in Syria

Turkey seeks to ease tensions with Moscow

Turkey protests against journalist arrests

Corbyn criticised over Syria air strike rejection

Saudi women begin first-ever election campaign

Russia prepares retaliation against Turkey

Tunisia to rethink anti-IS strategy

Cameron pushes for Britain to join Syria air strikes

Erdogan denies buying oil from IS

Lavrov says no war with Turkey after 'planned provocation'

Tunisia under state of emergency

Missing Iranian diplomat found dead in Saudi

Heavy Russia raids at site of Syria plane crash

Tunisia declares state of emergency after terrorist attack in heart of capital

Bahrain calls HRW torture report 'misleading'

Syria, Russia foreign ministers set Moscow talks

Rival Libya tribes sign peace deal to end months of fighting

Turkey reveals new cabinet of Erdogan allies

Turkey downs Russia Su-24 fighter jet on Syria border

Hopes fade away as Sudan peace talks break without deal

At least 6 dead in Libya bomb attack

Somali pirates seize Iran fishing boat with 15 crew

ISIS suicide bombers kill four in assault on Sinai hotel

Kerry visits Israel with scant hopes for major breakthrough

Hollande heads to Washington to seek support for war on ISIS

Brussels extends terror alert as US issues worldwide travel warning