The empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go. Progressive women who advocate modernity are still a minority. The conservatives still support gender segregation policies and do not consider driving for women to be a human rights issue. This was evident during a meeting in Riyadh that was organized by Al-Nahda Society to introduce the women of the Shoura Council to prominent women leaders and different women’s organizations in the Kingdom.
Among the progressive members of the Shoura Council who are strong advocates of women’s rights are Princess Sara Al-Faisal and Princess Moudy Bint Khaled. They both have long experience in social work. Princess Sara has headed Al-Nahda Society since its launch in 1962. She developed the association’s work, its objectives and its mission according to the needs of the community in general and the Saudi woman in particular, and she opened new horizons for creative projects for Al-Nahda. Princess Moudy is the secretary-general of both Al-Nahda Society and the King Khaled Foundation which is one of the more active charitable foundations in Riyadh. Al-Nahda was the first association to establish women’s educational and training centers in the Kingdom. It was also the first to conduct social survey research in the districts of Riyadh concerning the needs of the population.
There are still many who are skeptical about the influence of women in the Shoura. The debate continues and people are still wondering whether or not the women who have been appointed to the Shoura will be able to have an impact and whether they will be able to successfully voice their opinions to correct the status of women in Saudi society.
The progressive members who advocate modernity even if they are in the minority have a right to co-exist without being attacked and labeled as un-Islamic. We must all learn to accept the existing diversity within our society. Saudi society is divided between ultra conservatives who reject modernity and progressive individuals who wish to accelerate reforms, and the opinions of these two groups are greatly divided.
The disparity in Saudi society and controversial opinions among the public, especially the youth, continue to dominate social media debates. Inflammatory rhetoric that encourages nothing but intolerance and extremism must be checked. Some extremist and intolerant preachers continue to issue edicts condemning modernity and labeling those who support it as propagators of vice and sinful lifestyles. Young Saudis today are frustrated with the rigid lifestyle and are calling for more civil rights. We must not allow religious strife to jeopardize their future hopes and aspirations.
Not all of Saudi society conforms to the ultra conservative opinions entrenched in the minds of some who call for a boycott of entertainment networks and label advocates of modernity as enemies of the faith. The social debate continues and the government is sometimes reluctant to take a stand against the obstructionists who are delaying the reform movement and endangering the social fabric of our society.
Sayidaty.net recently conducted a survey, in which 71 percent of respondents were women and 29 percent men, to highlight some of the major issues that the public hopes the women in the Shoura Council will address. According to the survey, 54 percent believe that they will voice the opinions of women, 34 percent believe they will not, and 12 percent are not sure. Among other findings, 61 percent believe that the women Shoura members will raise the issue of providing housing for people of low income (61 percent), social security (51 percent), medical insurance (51 percent), the right of children to the retirement pension of their mothers (41 percent), housing allowance for women (74 percent), the right of women to drive (41 percent), setting up hospitals in villages (37 percent), establishing a family code (34 percent), limiting the guardianship rule (34 percent), granting citizenship to children of mothers married to non-Saudis (32 percent), upgrading the school curriculum (27 percent), and discussing the right to membership in the Supreme Judicial Council (12 percent).
This survey shows a great level of responsibility and maturity. There are those who recognize the need to address human rights and the different interpretations of Shariah laws. Dr. Ahmed Al-Hulaibi Professor of Islamic Culture at King Faisal University has pointed out that diversity enriches the Shariah platform and does not weaken it. The time has now come for a more flexible approach to all our needs. Indeed we must not allow extremists to dictate our lives and impose their views and opinions on the whole of society.
The movement of extremism must be addressed. There are some in our society who are against the empowerment of women and who promote extremism and intolerance. This phenomenon is a major threat that needs immediate attention. We must strive to narrow our differences of opinion and seek unity; we must provide an opportunity to avoid divisions and embrace different opinions and viewpoints.
Progressive women in the Shoura Council have a responsibility to advocate modernity and boldly voice the opinion of moderates who are marginalized and outnumbered in Saudi society. The real challenge facing women in the Shoura is to promote political and social cohesion and achieve national unity through acknowledging and accepting our differences.
Samar Fatany is a radio broadcaster and writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.