The rise of Islamist movements in the Arab Spring generally bodes poorly for women’s rights. But in Saudi Arabia, a country dominated by fundamentalist Islam, women are quietly driving a revolution.
Last month, Saudi crown prince Nayef announced that, for the first time, the monarchy would allow women to participate in this summer’s Olympics in sports that “meet the standards of women’s decency and don’t contradict Islamic laws.”
Reema Abdullah, who launched a women’s soccer team and hosts a sports radio show, will become the first Saudi woman to carry the Olympic torch en route to London.
What’s more, physical education may soon become part of the curriculum in girls’ schools for the first time. This would be an enormous victory for women’s health in a country with the world’s highest rates of type-II diabetes and a 70 percent obesity rate.
On Tuesday, the Saudi health ministry appointed a woman as the first assistant undersecretary.
These are only the most recent in a series of events that began in May 2011, when Manal al-Sharif reignited a decades-old debate over Saudi women’s right to drive. Almost overnight, a YouTube video that she recorded of herself driving on the kingdom’s streets—and openly breaking Saudi law—became an international sensation. Ensuing Facebook and Twitter campaigns encouraged more women to show solidarity behind the wheel on June 17.
Saudi authorities initially threatened that those who “violate the ban will be severely punished.” Official clergy warned that allowing women to drive would “provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce,” and that within ten years, there would be “no more virgins.”
To halt the campaign, Saudi authorities employed a “soft” crackdown, sentencing al-Sharif to ten days in jail. In September, a Saudi court sentenced thirty-four-year-old Shaima Jastaniya to ten lashes on her back for the offense of DWF (driving while female). In the end, King Abdullah intervened and commuted her sentence.
But Saudi women had already capitalized on the Arab revolts to agitate for the right to work. In June 2011, years of grassroots campaigning for female opportunities in retail finally paid off when King Abdullah issued a decree permitting women to work in lingerie and cosmetic shops and banning men from those jobs.
Notwithstanding Wahhabi opposition to women in the workplace, the king’s decree was sensible. It will reduce women’s unemployment—which stands at 80 percent—and eliminate the awkward arrangement whereby women consult male clerks about bras and underwear.
And the changes didn’t stop at undergarments.
In December, Saudi women scored a significant political victory, as the government announced that women would be permitted to run and vote in the 2015 municipal elections as well as be appointed to the Saudi parliament, known as the Shura Council. Of course, the council’s 150 members are all appointed by the monarchy, and the body has no real legislative authority, but the inclusion of women is still powerfully symbolic.
With these and other small victories under their belts, some women have even taken to organized protesting—an act that, only months earlier, would have been unlikely.
In March, thousands of female students at King Khaled University, in the country’s southwest, boycotted classes and protested when the university suspended its cleaning service—and let trash pile up—because the students weren’t taking care of the campus. In response, security guards cracked down, injuring at least fifty-three women with sticks, fire extinguishers and hoses and “banging them against chairs and desks.” The violence produced coed protests demanding that the university’s president resign.
Given the sorry state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, these small steps together may be the start of a leap forward.
Saudi women are still forced to live under the guardianship of their male relatives from cradle to grave. Though 60 percent of the country’s college graduates are women, its government prohibits them from driving, and they need approval from their male guardians to attend school, own businesses, file for divorce, travel abroad or receive medical treatment at government hospitals.
Some females are stripped of their decision-making rights from a very early age. The practice of marrying prepubescent girls to grown men is common, especially among poorer families.
Saudi women have a long road ahead to reach anything close to the gender equality of the Western world. But they’ve found their voices, and the monarchy won’t be able to repress them forever.
Steven Miller is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and coauthor of the forthcoming monograph Facebook Fatwa: Saudi Clerics, Wahhabi Islam and Social Media.