By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad
Oct. 4 -- It's to be expected that commentators writing in Saudi-owned media will be friendly toward royal initiatives, especially those undertaken by King Abdullah.
But they went overboard last week, responding to the king's announcement that women would be allowed to vote and stand for election in 2015 municipal polls as well as serve on the Consultative Council whose members he alone appoints. Neither the consultative nor the municipal councils wield real power, since both are advisory bodies. Half the members of the 285 municipal councils are directly appointed by the king. And the rights of women remain seriously curtailed in the kingdom: for instance, a woman will have to secure permission from a male guardian to vote or stand as a candidate, and women still cannot legally drive or travel without permission of a male guardian. Yet the media acted as if Abdullah had ushered in a golden era of democracy and gender equality.
The king has definitively ended the era in which “women were marginalized and excluded,” crowed Muhammad Bin Abd-al-Latif al-Shaykh in an op-ed for the Saudi-based daily Al-Jazirah. “She will now join a council that is tasked to enact rules and laws.”
In the broadly circulated Saudi-based Al-Watan, columnist Yahya al-Amir wrote that the inability of women to drive was a "detail" and a "secondary issue." He called the king's electoral initiative an "historical decision." Once women join the Consultative Council, he wrote, “this council will be rid of its shortcomings, which were caused by the fact that it was limited to men.”
In a column in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat daily, which is owned by a leading member of the Saudi royal family, Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, went so far as to say, “The king has granted Saudi women genuine status in all fields, in society as a whole.”
Al-Rashed, who is general manager of Al-Arabiya TV, which is partly owned by a different prominent member of the Saudi royal family, argued that the king's decision had nothing to do with the ongoing revolutions in other Arab countries. He wrote:
In fact, there have been no popular demands for the right of women to vote, or to stand for election, or to be represented in the Shura Council. Accordingly, we cannot characterize the decree as a response to popular pressure, but rather it was a progressive step that transformed King Abdullah into a genuine man of reform.
In reality, women activists in Saudi Arabia have long been demanding the right to vote in the municipal elections that took place last month. More than 60 leading public figures called for male voters to boycott the elections because women were disenfranchised. King Saud University historian Hatun al-Fasi, who works with the popular Saudi pressure group Baladi, threatened to organize parallel voting for “women’s municipal councils" if changes were not forthcoming.
In the Beirut-based As-Safir newspaper, columnist Sateh Noureddine wrote:
One of the notable signs of the Arab Spring was that it highlighted a special Saudi feminist movement that was launched years ago. This movement became apparent in the fields of economics, society, culture and media. It even took to the street at times and challenged the religious and family institutions that have always oppressed the Saudi woman. There was even an actual feminist uprising, with women driving cars in Riyadh without caring about going to jail and demonstrating in front of the University of Jeddah without caring about the security men and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
The King’s response to democratic pressures may be “a giant leap" by Saudi standards, Noureddine wrote, but the next Saudi rulers “must build on this leap because they realize the Arab Spring will not stop at the borders of Saudi Arabia for too long.”
They also know, he concluded, “the next question will be, 'When will the Saudi man obtain his rights?'”
In an editorial, the Palestinian owned, London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi noted that once the Saudi king's pronouncement take effect, women, whether elected or appointed, will be represented in the consultative councils or parliaments of all the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The paper wrote that in Saudi Arabia, however, "they are still waiting to exercise that legitimate right, alongside others enjoyed by their counterparts in the other GCC countries, of driving a car.”
If elected or appointed, Saudi women will be able to serve on powerless councils, but they will still have to book their drivers to get to the gig.
(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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Lisa Beyer at firstname.lastname@example.org or +1-212-205-0372.-0- Oct/04/2011 14:45 GMT