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Saudi Women Should Be Given Citizens' Rights

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
November 24, 2003
Financial Times


Saudi Arabia urgently needs reform. The country's conservative establishment has been slow to respond to the needs of an increasingly young - and under-employed - population. Islamic militants have found this a fertile recruiting ground; in a series of bombings, they have begun to confront the Saudi monarchy. Without deep economic, political and cultural changes, the country risks prolonged social unrest.

Reformists would do well to start with the municipal elections promised for next year. They should push for women to be allowed to vote and to run for office. Enfranchisement of women would not only represent a welcome advance in human rights, but could also begin a process of real social reform.

So far, the country's rulers have not yet announced whether women will be allowed to participate. Press reports indicate that members of the Shoura Council, the country's unelected national advisory body, are divided about the issue. One senior member has suggested that while women are unlikely to be part of the municipal councils, other action might be taken to include women, such as forming women's committees for each council.

Saudi women are poised for change. Only a generation ago, less than 2 per cent of them were literate. Today, more than 70 per cent are, thanks to free public education for girls which started in 1964, against strong conservative resistance. By some accounts, female students now outnumber male students at schools and universities, which remain segregated. Saudi women today hold many prestigious positions in business, academia, medicine, the media and even within the government. Yet women are not allowed to drive, are subject to beatings from the vice squad for "morality lapses", such as appearing in public without full cover of the abaya, and are routinely treated as second-class citizens.

Last year, the country was sickened by an incident in which 15 schoolgirls in Mecca perished in a fire. The religious police had forbidden them to leave their burning building because they were not wearing their abayas. The event triggered a national debate about the role of women.

Saudi women increasingly chafe under the restrictions imposed on them. Prominent professional women have petitioned the government for elections, an independent judiciary, protection of human rights and religious tolerance. As the language of human rights becomes more common, awareness is growing about the importance of women's rights.

Awareness is growing too that women in many neighbouring countries enjoy greater economic and political opportunities. Even in Qatar - the only other state in the region to be under the sway of the highly conservative Wahhabi school of Islam - women not only voted in this year's municipal elections but were able to run for office too. One was elected.

Change is slowly starting to happen. The government has announced that the Shoura Council is to set up a family council to tackle a range of women's issues, including the country's one-sided divorce laws. Saud Al- Faisal, foreign minister, also recently announced that, from next year, women would begin to hold senior positions in the diplomatic corps.

While these steps could easily be dismissed as tokenism, they have the potential to lead to real change. With a fast-growing population and flat oil revenues during the past two decades, per capita gross national product has plummeted from Dollars 18,000 in 1981 to Dollars 8,500 (Pounds 4,700) today. The country can no longer afford to under-use more than half its productive human capital.

Women also have the potential to be a moderating political influence. In neighbouring Kuwait, another highly conservative country where women cannot vote, nearly 1,000 women participated in a shadow vote in the last election. They voted overwhelmingly for more liberal candidates, in contrast to the male electorate.

The west thus has a clear interest in seeing Saudi women assume a more active economic and political role in their country. It should encourage these trends, without embracing the issue too closely. Any changes perceived locally as driven by Washington, say, are likely to generate resistance. What western governments can do is hold the Saudi leadership accountable for following through on the changes it promises to make. They can start by reminding the Saudis that women are citizens too, and should be included in next year's elections.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations