Saudi Arabia - Women’s Issues: Baby Steps and Individual
Arab News -
04 January, 2007
Perhaps there is no issue in Saudi Arabia more sensitive,
more controversial and more shrouded in secrecy and contradictions than the
issue of women. Whether it is driving, Shoura Council membership, legal rights,
employment or anything concerning women, it is guaranteed to generate debate and
However, that does not seem to translate into actual
change in the status of women or in the implementation of laws supporting women.
Instead, society favors siding with traditions that hamper women’s progress. The
year 2006 witnessed ups and downs for women, although the ups seemed more like
baby steps and individual successes rather than real change or
In January 2006, the Shoura Council created a women’s committee
as a “consultative body” and nominated the women who would be called to offer
their opinion on women-related issues. This committee fell short of what women
have been asking for — full membership and equal role in the council as men —
but some considered it a step forward toward reaching that goal. It is another
small step in a long road toward recognizing women as fully capable of
contributing and participating in all aspects of social life and granting them
their rights according to Islam.
Last year, women participated for the
first time in the chambers of commerce and engineering council elections, and
won seats there. However, while businesswomen were able to win board seats in
the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, they were unable to do so in the
elections of the other chambers held throughout 2006. On the other hand, women’s
presence in the board of the Saudi Council of Engineers paved the way for women
engineers being officially recognized, supported and protected by the council.
Another indication of women gaining some power in the work place after
years of proving themselves was in the Ministry of Education, which employs the
largest number of women. In 2006, women were promoted into leadership positions
in the ministry with the aim of filling up the ranks with women in the Girls’
Administration. In Saudi Radio, a woman was finally appointed director of
programming in Jeddah.
Also in January 2006, women finally celebrated
being able to apply for and receive their personal ID without the consent of
their male guardian as previously enforced for four years since women’s ID were
first issued. This progress only proves that change happens slowly and gradually
in Saudi Arabia, especially for women. The decision to allow women the right to
get their ID without their guardian’s consent was an important step, but it
remains limited in terms of curbing the power of the guardianship system over
the lives of women who continue to be considered minors in the eyes of the
government and society.
However, sometimes even when laws benefiting
women are introduced at the official level and are then rejected or stalled at
the social and administrative level. An example is the case of officials trying
to open more doors of employment for women in accordance to ministry level
decisions but facing resistance and objections from society. This was
exemplified in the decision to allow women to work in lingerie shops.
The Ministry of Labor announced that it would enforce the decision
starting June 18, 2006. Young unemployed women by the hundreds signed up for
training in sales, store management and marketing at the JCCI and applied for
jobs, but few shop owners offered them jobs or showed interest in accommodating
them. They complained about the impracticality and extra expenses they had to
endure to segregate the women employees from the men and to shield them from
public view. Those who did accommodate women, faced angry objections from the
Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice for not
implementing the segregation measures strictly enough even though the Labor
Office had already permitted the measures taken by the stores.
Eventually the ministry withdrew its proposals and made the decision to
employ women in the lingerie stores optional. During the year, the government
established vocational and technical training centers for women in such jobs as
electronics, nutrition, computers, photography, decorating, jewelry making and
many others. Again, hundreds of women applied. The hope is that these women
would be able to work after they complete their training and not face
restrictions and objections.
Businesswomen point out that investment
regulations for women are the same as for men, yet they continue to face
restrictions and obstacles from government employees especially with regard to
needing a male wakeel (representative), which was supposedly dropped as a
requirement last year. The same is the situation with regard to segregating men
and women at the workplace even when that is impractical. In meeting after
meeting, businesswomen expressed their frustrations at these obstacles and
contradictions in the system.
The courts and government departmentss do
not facilitate or accommodate women in order for them to take care of their
business or legal issues themselves, forcing them instead to rely on a wakeel
who might take advantage of the situation, even though the system on paper
allows women the same rights and access as men.
businesswomen are leading the push for change, they continue to raise the issue
of women’s essential role in the country’s development and more importantly ask
for activating their rights granted to them by Islam or permitted to them by the
Empowering women by reforming policies and regulations that
discriminate against them was part of the National Vision and central to the
five-year plan announced last year. The women board members at the JCCI are in
constant contact and discussions with the various top officials to remove the
regulatory obstacles and discriminatory measures and to introduce new laws and
measures that would be satisfactory to all.
Women not knowing their
rights are also part of the problem. The women’s committee at the Saudi
Management Society has organized several seminars and workshops on women’s
rights in the public and private sectors throughout the year since it was
established. Women should be able to voice their complaints and reach a just
resolution for their problems whether in the workplace or in their private life.
Women filing for divorce continue to suffer from not getting their
divorce papers processed for months and years and not being granted custody of
their children or visitation rights. On the other extreme, a woman like Fatima
is languishing in jail after being forcefully divorced from her husband and is
refusing to return to her family who were behind the ruin of her happiness.
Even at the Grand Mosque in Makkah, women were made to feel second class
when in August, the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques considered a proposal to
shift the women’s prayer area far away from the Circumambulation area around the
Kaaba, as if fencing them inside the small “women’s cage” was not bad enough. An
international outcry by Muslim women objecting to and demanding their rights to
be before God with equal access as men within Islamic jurisprudence persuaded
the presidency to reject the