Saudi Arabia - Women’s Issues: Baby Steps and Individual Successes   

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 media attention.

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 progress.

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.

Nevertheless, 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 authorities.

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 proposal.

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