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.

 

Pressure on multiple fronts squeezes rebels in northern Syria

Iraq prepares for Mosul offensive with massive deployment

Libya Presidential Council needs ‘more time’ to form unity government

Khamenei to Iran officials: Don’t let elections distract you!

Qatar hopes to host Summer Olympics (…) ‘maybe 2028’

Israel sets two conditions for return of Palestinian bodies

Moscow denies accusation that air strikes undermined Syria talks

Israeli general says IS wounded were treated in Gaza

Doctors, police protest in northern Iraq

Canada to cease all air strikes against ISIS by February 22

Outraged Italy demands answers over brutal killing of student in Egypt

Bahrain charges 11 with forming 'terrorist' group

Obama to Arab countries: security requires 'inclusive government'

Tunnel collapse kills one Gazan man on Egypt border

South Sudan war zones on the brink of famine

UN accuses Assad regime of 'extermination' in jails

At least 35 migrants drown in two accidents in Aegean Sea

Cameron's office warns Brexit could affect border controls

Russia detains seven alleged IS members

Turkey groups send in aid for thousands of Syria refugees on border

Syria rebels withdraw from three Aleppo villages

Saudi intercepts Scud missile from Yemen

Merkel heads to Turkey to press for tighter border controls

Turkey promises to let in Syria refugees 'if necessary'

Hamas armed branch executes one of its own members

Syria army advances towards rebel town of Tal Rifaat

Netherlands probes civilian casualties in Iraq air strikes

Algeria parliament adopts Bouteflika’s constitutional reforms

Erdogan asks Americans: Who’s your partner, Turkey or Kurds?

UAE ready to send ground troops to Syria

Tunisia completes construction of Libya border fence

Algeria parliament to vote on constitutional reforms

Egypt returns body of Italian student Giulio Regeni

Iran reverses mass ban on candidates for parliamentary polls

Thousands of Syria refugees brave bad weather at border with Turkey

New photos reveal serious abuse of Iraq prisoners in US facilities

EU reminds Turkey: Keep your border open to Syria refugees

Somalia recaptures key port of Merka from Shebab

Iran warns Saudi Arabia over possible ground action in Syria

Palestinian journalist to keep up hunger strike

Iraq’s Sistani to end weekly political sermons

Shebab fighters recapture key port in Somalia

Syria regime forces close in on Daraa

Israeli leaders slam Arab MPs, refuse to return Palestinian corpses

IS jihadists rise in Libya, drop in Iraq and Syria