The traditional Western views of Arab women as docile, submissive, black-draped figures hidden from the public eye have been challenged this past spring during the mass uprisings across the Arab world. Women have spearheaded protests - sometimes appearing on the front lines more often than men - but will the Arab Spring keep its promises of change to these women, or will the coming fall be just as harsh toward them as countless seasons past? Will the women whose support was openly welcomed in the heat of a rally be ignored when they ask for their half of the freedoms promised by regime change? Furthermore, what do these developments mean for women in other Gulf states?
In Saudi Arabia, for example, women recently were granted the right to vote, effective in 2015. However, voting is virtually inconsequential to a Saudi citizen’s life. There are very few elections, and elected officials hold little power, as every aspect of life is controlled by the monarchy. This is an almost irrelevant action in a country where there has been no recent progress in the status of women’s rights. Will the tides of change in the Arab world ever rise to meet the Gulf’s shores?
While women have long participated in the political process and in political change in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain, they are absent in Saudi politics as well as in many other aspects of Saudi life. Even with this new decree on the part of King Abdullah, women still will have to receive permission of a male “guardian” to vote. Is that what we consider a step toward freedom?
Women were driving forces in the Egyptian independence movement of 1919 and the various Tunisian campaigns against the French in the 1940s and ‘50s, but Saudi women have never held clout in Saudi politics and governance. Tunisia has long been lauded as the Arab nation with the most advanced policies on women’s rights issues, while Saudi women are not even allowed to participate in sports. The spark of the rioting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square began when a young woman posted an inspiring appeal for justice on her Facebook page. The stark contrast in the lives of women living so close to each other is disheartening.
Women in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain were able to participate in the uprisings because they already had some foothold on basic rights under the past regimes. Though they have lived in deplorable conditions as far as equality is concerned, in both Egypt and Tunisia, women make up one-fifth of the nations’ wage-earners, have equal participation to men in labor unions and are much freer to seek education. In contrast, a Saudi Arabian woman must seek consent of a male guardian to become educated. It could be her husband, father or even her son, but a man must sign off to allow her to do virtually anything.
Now, the Arab Spring has awakened women across the Gulf region and the entire Arab world to rise against the constraints once imposed upon them, but the question emerges: Will the democratic fervor continue, or will the women who helped spark the change be left behind? In Tunisia, at least, there seems to be some hope. The commission established to retool the Tunisian electorate has made strides recently toward increased female participation in politics: It has voted that there must be a 50-50 split between women and men on electoral lists and that women must have equal representation among the top-ranking and lower roles in each party. Maya Jribi, a notable biologist and feminist, already holds the title as leader of one of the top opposition parties, the Progressive Democratic Party of Tunisia, and more women like her are sure to follow.
Unfortunately, not all in the Arab world are lucky enough to have the opportunity for strong female leadership. Egypt and Tunisia were able to choose these paths because there was some semblance of a starting point for women to begin taking the initiative. In a place like Saudi Arabia, where every aspect of a woman’s life is subject to oppressive policies and control of her male counterparts, implementing change is a long way off.
The campaign No Women, No Play (NWNP) is one of the many forces hoping to change that. As a first start to promoting far-reaching rights for Saudi women, it hopes to open the world of sports to female athletes. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from athletics. Women are prohibited not only from playing sports, but also from being coaches, trainers, managers and journalists. In order to enact change in this sector of Saudi society, NWNP is putting pressure on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban Saudi Arabia from the London 2012 games unless it complies with the IOC charter, which prohibits discriminatory policies. The choice is clear: Let women play or be banned from the IOC.
While part of the Arab world is braced for immeasurable changes for women and expansion of human rights for all, some states in the region lag too far behind to catch up anytime soon. In these cases, such as in Saudi Arabia, small steps must be ventured in order to propel greater progress later on. While the tentative expansion of voting rights is certainly a good start, far greater reform needs to be enacted to end the gender apartheid that exists in Saudi Arabia.Whether it’s the ability to play sports or to drive legally, opening basic rights like these to Saudi women is the first step toward providing them a more salient role in society.
Shireen Shakouri is the Washington coordinator for No Women No Play.