Activists among Saudi Arabia’s women, who can’t drive or vote and need male approval to work and travel, are turning to the type of online organizing that helped topple Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to force change in a system they say treats them like children.
The “Baladi” or “My Country” campaign is focused on this year’s municipal elections, only the second nationwide ballot that the absolute monarchy has allowed. The election board yesterday said women will be excluded from the Sept. 22 vote. Another group, the Saudi Women’s Revolution, citing inspiration from the Arab activism that grew into revolts against Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, is pressing for equal treatment and urging international support.
The wave of anti-regime protests that spread from Tunisia and Egypt into some of Saudi Arabia’s Persian Gulf neighbors, such as Bahrain and Oman, hasn’t translated into mass street demonstrations in the kingdom that holds the world’s biggest oil reserves. Saudi rulers have taken steps to ensure it won’t, pledging almost $100 billion of spending on homes, jobs and benefits. They also deployed thousands of police in Riyadh on March 11, when a protest was planned by Internet organizers -- a group that increasingly includes Saudi women.
“Women are raised to fear men and to fear speaking out,” said Mona al-Ahmed, a 25-year-old in the coastal city of Jeddah. She said she joined the Women’s Revolution campaign after her brother refused to let her take her dream job, as a biochemist, because it would involve working in a mixed-gender environment. “I opened my eyes one day and said, ‘This is not the life I want’,” al-Ahmed said in a phone interview.
Least Democratic State
Like other opposition and protest groups in Saudi Arabia, the women’s movement faces a tough task. The kingdom ranked as the least democratic state in the Middle East, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2010 Democracy Index.
“Women will not participate in this session,” Abdul-Rahman al-Dahmash, director of the kingdom’s electoral commission, said at a press conference yesterday, referring to the municipal balloting. “There is a plan, though not with a definite time, to put in place a framework so that women can participate in upcoming elections.”
Baladi said on its Facebook page that Saudi women “are like other women in the world who have hopes and ambitions” and must be allowed to vote.
While Saudi Arabia was placed in the top one-third of nations in the United Nations 2010 Human Development Report -- higher than European Union member Bulgaria -- its score for gender equality was much lower. On that UN measure, which includes assessments of reproductive health and participation in politics and the labor market, the country ranked 128th of 138 nations, below Iran and Pakistan.
‘You Are Divorced’
Saudi Arabia enforces the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam and its clerics say that requires strict segregation of the sexes, including in government offices, workplaces and public spaces such as restaurants. Other areas of discontent highlighted by women writers and activists include family law. A Saudi man can end his marriage by telling his wife, “You are divorced,” while women must go to a court or an authorized cleric to get a dissolution. Custody of children above a certain age is usually granted to the father.
Saudi Arabia is also one of the few countries that has a high rate of executions for women, Amnesty International said in a 2008 report. Adultery is among the capital offenses.
“Authorities continue to systematically suppress or fail to protect the rights of nine million Saudi women and girls,” Human Rights Watch said in a January report on the country. In an open letter to Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal two months earlier, the group urged his government to meet pledges it had made to “end the system of male guardianship over women, to give full legal identity to Saudi women, and to prohibit gender discrimination.”
‘Treated Like Minors’
Those are among the goals of the Women’s Revolution group, which began as an exchange of Twitter messages among likeminded women, and now has more than 2,000 Facebook supporters. “Women are treated like minors, except if they commit a crime,” the group said in a statement on Facebook. “Then they are equal.”
Alia al-Faqih, 19, said this year’s Arab revolts inspired her to join the group and demand change in her country.
“The protesters in Egypt and Tunisia did something that was almost impossible,” she said in a telephone interview from Jeddah. “If they could bring down two tough presidents, why can’t we demand our rights?”
Saudi Arabia’s ruler, King Abdullah, who turns 87 this year, has pledged to improve the status of women. He opened the kingdom’s first co-educational university in 2009, appointed its first female deputy minister, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, the same year, and has promised steps to improve access to jobs for women, who make up about 15 percent of the workforce. That would help improve productivity in the kingdom’s oil-dominated economy, say analysts including John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi.
A change of policy in 2008 allowed women to stay in hotels without male guardians, and an amendment to the Labor Law allowed women to work in all fields “suitable to their nature.” Women can now study law at university, without being allowed to practice as lawyers in courts.
At some companies, such as billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s Kingdom Holding Co., women are permitted to work alongside men. That isn’t typical, though. Most companies that hire women must provide a women-only section that is off-limits to the male staff.
Human Rights Watch concluded in January that “reforms to date have involved largely symbolic steps to improve the visibility of women.”
Some measures have been opposed by religious traditionalists. Others that are on the statute books haven’t been implemented, including a 2006 law that says only female staff can be employed in women’s clothing stores.
That issue has prompted petitions and even boycotts of lingerie stores in recent years by women activists angry that, while required to cover themselves in black cloaks in public, they are also obliged to discuss intimate details about their underwear with men, who monopolize most sales jobs under current practice. Reem Asaad, who has spearheaded the campaign, said more actions are planned in the coming months.
The Baladi campaigners, who are focusing on the elections, say that gaining the vote would help change the outside world’s perception of Saudi women, as well as improving their lives.
“The stereotype of women in Saudi Arabia is that they are unaccounted for, incapable of reacting to their surroundings and vulnerable to cruelty,” the group said on its Facebook page, which has more than 2,000 followers. “It is vital to contribute to change such perceptions.”
‘Claims of Reform’
The last municipal election in 2005 was the first full nationwide ballot the country has held, even though only half of the council members were elected and the rest appointed. It was held at a time when the kingdom was under international pressure to reform after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S., in which most participants were Saudi citizens. Some regime critics have blamed the lack of democracy for the prevalence of an Islamist ideology that offers justification for militant acts.
The breadth of the franchise in this year’s vote is a test of sincerity for Saudi rulers, said Hatoon al-Fassi, one of the Baladi campaigners. Expanding it to include women “would show that Saudi Arabia is serious about its claims of reform,” she said in an interview yesterday -- hours before the government announced that women won’t be allowed to vote.