RIYADH, Saudi Arabia— With International Women’s Day approaching (Mar. 8), women’s rights advocates and activists around the world are re-evaluating the inequalities women are faced with regularly. The gap in gender equality is especially noticeable in Saudi Arabia, where women are treated as second-class citizens. They lack the authority to make their own decisions and a male guardian ultimately controls their actions. Women cannot leave the country without permission, nor can they obtain a license to drive.
Saudi activists have been actively petitioning against the unjust laws that limit their freedoms. Aziza Yousef has been planning with other protestors to lobby the Shura, or consultative, Council on International Women’s Day this coming week to fight against the dominance that Saudi men have over women. As of now, they are working on obtaining signatures for a petition that asks to rid of male guardians and allow women to drive.
Unfortunately, past attempts at permitting women to drive have failed. Specifically, three female representatives of the Shura Council proposed that women be granted the opportunity to drive in October. The response involved complete disapproval by the rest of the 150-member, patriarchal assembly.
In recent months, however, women have made accomplishments, particularly in regards to gaining new positions in Saudi Arabia’s workforce. In October of 2013, the first female lawyers gained licenses to practice law. A few months after, the first female law firm was established and opened in Jeddah by Bayan Mahmoud Al Zahran. Zahran, along with three other female attorneys in the firm, Jihan Qurban, Ameera Quqani and Sarra Al Omari, take on cases that promote and protect women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
There has been another recent victory for women in the private sector at a Saudi newspaper. Somayya Jabarti was appointed to the Saudi Gazette as its first female editor-in-chief. The man who appointed her, Khaled Almaeena, stated, “She has been associated with me for almost 13 years, and I’ve had the goal almost as long of wanting to see a Saudi woman enter the male-dominated bastion of editors-in-chief. It was not a question of gender, but of merit that decided and earned her this opportunity. I am proud to have played a role in her career.”
It is refreshing to hear that the reason for Jabarti’s promotion was because of her distinction and ability to succeed in the position, and not for the sole sake of filling a gender quota for the newspaper employee list (not that gender quotas are of frequent concern in Saudi Arabia).
Besides the accomplishments within law and journalism, Saudi women have thrived in other practices as well over the past few years. Women are rapidly increasing in roles within factories, retail shops, finance, teaching and nursing.
There have also been other notable ‘firsts’ for Saudi women, such as the first female Olympic athlete, the first woman to work in a governmental cabinet position, and the first woman appointed to Consultative Assembly. The latter two are especially monumental, since women are not only excelling in the private sector, but are being recognized and elected to public service positions, where they should have more power and influence.
There is some irony to the fact that women are changing the traditional roles played by Saudi women, but yet they still cannot drive. Until the law that prohibits women to drive, or the law that states every woman needs a guardian, are abolished, women will not be viewed or treated the same as their male counterparts.
There is much to be said about Saudi women permeating the public and private sector, however, and it will place women in an advantageous position to influence other women and girls. In addition, an increase in women in the workforce will bring more success to the economy. Not to mention that on an individual level, more working women will decrease the number of those in poverty since more families will be able to afford the high cost of living.
Hopefully activists and Saudi women in general will continue to break down barriers. Younger Saudi girls will be influenced by the presence of working women as role models, which will encourage them to finish their education and add to the growing list of ‘firsts’. A movement of women changing the social climate within Saudi Arabia will continue to challenge sexist traditions imbedded in its laws. Eventually all Saudi women will be able to enjoy the same opportunities as men, including being able to drive themselves to work without the authorization of a guardian.
– Danielle Warren