Saudi women: Time to speak up!

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Why are most advocates of women’s rights men? And as we enter a new phase of more freedoms and rights, why are most of our women not taking them up or demanding more?

I was on a live Panorama FM program, where the issue was women driving. Most callers were men. Some were pointing out how most women have not taken up their right to drive in order to argue that it was not what they wanted. The interviewer and I were reminding women to please call in — we need to hear your voice. None did!

After the program, we discussed why so many women were either passive about or against women’s rights. I told my colleagues of a childhood experience.

Once my family had pigeons in a large wooden cage. I felt that that was imprisonment. Pigeons were created as birds, so they could fly. They were made free and free they should be.

Finally, my siblings were persuaded with my logical and passionate arguments. That afternoon we decided to let them go. We were excited as we climbed to the roof and opened the door to the cage and ran, for we expected them to fly all at once in our faces. They did not. So we thought that they were afraid of us, and we hid. We waited and waited till night. They did not even come close to the door of their “prison”. Finally, we gave up and left. The next morning they were all gone!

I never stopped thinking why they hesitated to fly away until it hit me. They were kept behind bars for so long that for them freedom was a foreign concept. They never knew that they had the right to be free. And maybe they forgot or did not know how to manage their lives on their own. In the cage, they had traded their freedom for security and free “room service.” Out there beyond the cage, who knew what awaited them!

It could be so with our women. We all know what happened to the first pioneers who advocated women driving. Fascists hunt them to this day. They were made examples of for the rest of the “pigeon” population. Even in this age, female women’s rights advocates can be harshly punished. Brave ones are still fighting the cause. Some of them were appointed to the Shoura Council and to high public and corporate positions. They are more prominent in the media and have more say in their own affairs.

Still, however, most advocates are male. But some women accuse us. “Who authorized you to speak on our behalf? Are you trying to corrupt our Islamic conservative society for personal gains?” our female detractors ask. “If you and your Western masters believe in democracy, then you must accept the majority’s wishes. Most of us do not agree with your devilish agenda. So just leave us alone — and if you don’t like our way of life, go and live were it suits you to.”

It is tough to represent silent victims. You need authorization and backup to legitimize your fight. Many women suffer from abuse. A new law protecting women and children against domestic violence is a milestone. However, we still have a long way to go. For example, underage marriage is still legal and many women are not allowed to choose their marriage partners. Others are forced to divorce their husbands later, because they the men not equal in tribal hierarchy.

The problem is that too many rights are given to male guardians. Most of them are not Islamic, as Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman has pointed out.

A woman doctor, graduate of a top British medical school, complained: “After all my achievements, I still need a guardian’s permission to work, travel or participate in academic and professional seminars and conferences. I regard myself lucky, however. One doctoral student could not finish her studies because her husband insisted that her dissertation advisor must be female, even though none were available in the college. Another had to go down a level, because her jealous husband would not let her study in a different class than his, and his was lower.”

Yes, this doctor is luckier than many. Other women could not even study abroad because they could not find a guardian willing to travel with them, or even accept the idea of women studying abroad.

However, all of the above issues cannot be raised without women speaking out.

Modern communication tools are more open and available today than ever. If traditional media seems out of reach, then Facebook, Twitter and electronic journals and blogs are at your service - for free.

Our elected female members of corporations and chambers of commerce, as well as the Shoura Council, and writers and journalists could and should voice women’s grievances and demands. We, gentlemen, will always back them up, but ladies should speak first.

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah.He can be reached at kbatarfi@gmail.com. Follow him at Twitter:@kbatarfi


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