Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

October 29, 2012

OP-ED: Extension of Scholarship Program will Transform a Generation of Saudis

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

29 October 2012

Flying under the media radar recently was a yet another decision by King Abdullah that is expected to have a far-reaching impact on Saudi Arabia’s future.
At a workshop in Dubai, Dr. Saad Nasser Aldwayan, an international cooperation consultant for the Ministry of Higher Education, said that King Abdullah’s university scholarship program will be extended to 2020, according to the Saudi online newspaper Safaraa. The king launched the program in 2005, then extended it for another two years in 2007. It was extended a third time in 2009 for another three years.
Committing the scholarship program through 2020 allows a new generation of Saudis to study at Western universities. It will bring students’ graduate and post-graduate skills home to help transform Saudi Arabia from its dependency on oil to a nonoil producer and exporter of Saudi goods.
My wife benefited from the scholarship program, arriving in the United Kingdom in 2007 to study for her Ph.D and then returning this year to Saudi Arabia to a waiting job as an assistant university professor. During her five-year program, she came across scores of Saudi men and women studying a wide range of subjects. They couldn’t wait to return to Saudi Arabia with their newfound skills and begin serving their country.
If I sound like an enthusiastic supporter of the scholarship program it’s because there is no other reform measure that will have the effect on young Saudis than a free university education.
According to Safaraa, Saudis under the age of 40 account for 79 percent of the total Saudi population. An estimated 36 percent are under the age of 15.
Those 15-year-olds will become eligible for the scholarship program in 2015 and will return home with university degrees before today’s 10-year-olds become eligible to enter the program in 2020 at the age of 18.
An estimated 1.15 million Saudi students are currently enrolled at domestic and foreign universities and colleges with women making up 60 percent of the higher education student population. The scholarship program receives about SR 9 million annually that pays for 125,000 undergraduate and post-graduate students at about 3,000 universities worldwide.
About 23,000 Saudi students are studying at universities in the United States for the 2010-2011 academic year. That’s a 43 percent increase over the previous year. About 20 percent of those students are women. Science, medicine and high-tech fields of study have attracted a large number of Saudi women.
At Saudi universities women can now earn degrees in law, petroleum engineering, political science and journalism, although the reality is that few jobs in these fields are available to women. However, this is a remarkable turnaround for a country that had seen its 5 percent literacy rate in the 1950s climb to 79 percent today. The literacy rate for Saudi females between the ages of 15 to 24 jumped from 81.7 percent in 1992 to 96.5 percent in 2009.
By 2020, at least 1 million young Saudis will have gone through the scholarship program with a majority coming home from Western universities.
Imagine the implications. In the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of Saudi men attended universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. But in most cases they returned home without using their knowledge to implement more efficient ways to do business in the private and government sectors. As one Saudi told me recently, “It takes a lot of energy to fight the culture. After a while you just want to get along.”
From my conversations with young Saudis today, the attitude is vastly different. Possessing the social awareness and technical knowledge not available to their parents and grandparents, young Saudis are impatient to be part of the global community. They desperately want to serve the interests of their country. They don’t want to gain knowledge for the sake of knowledge and a degree. They want to make a difference.
A sign of the changing attitudes among young Saudi students is their willingness to attend Catholic universities such as Catholic University in Northeast Washington and the University of Dayton in Ohio in the United States. It’s common for Saudis not only to acknowledge that Catholic universities offer curriculum that matches their career goals, but those same universities share values similar to those of Islam. Attending such universities strengthens their commitment to Islam and embraces King Abdullah’s vision of interfaith tolerance.
The cultural benefits of attending such universities reflect the global view of the new generation. While it may have been difficult for thousands of Saudi men to effect change in Saudi culture a generation ago, the same can’t be said for the new crop of university students who have a much broader view of the world due to exposure through social media.
As we have seen with this past Haj and with other programs, socially conscious Saudis have volunteered their time to aid pilgrims and the poor. Even before young people are ready to attend a university, social media and the exposure of other cultures through the Internet has primed them to look at their own world with a critical eye. Their expectations will be high when they return from abroad. And it’s up to Saudi society to accommodate those expectations.

March 22, 2012

Saudi Women on Their Way to the Olympics

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line/Gulf Times

22 March 2012

Kingdom to field female athletes, assuaging critics aboard, spurring controversy at home

Crown Prince Nayef’s surprise announcement that Saudi Arabia expects to field at least one woman athlete in the Summer Olympics in London has sparked optimism among some women that the door to female participation in sports has opened a bit wider. Yet some Saudis caution that women should not sacrifice religious faith to appease Western critics of Saudi culture.

Saudi Arabia has come under withering criticism in the past year for its failure to provide physical education opportunities for girls at public schools and for preventing professional women’s sports teams from organizing. Human Rights Watch has been especially critical of the Saudi government, issuing a 51-page report in February documenting systematic discrimination against women in athletics.

Last year, Anita DeFranz, chief of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Women and Sports Commission, threatened to ban Saudi Arabia from the games if it didn’t send women athletes.

However, Crown Prince Nayef, regarded as a hardliner who maintains that Saudi Arabia adheres to the ultra-conservative Salafist ideology of Islam, followed King Abdullah’s game plan to broaden women’s rights. Women in recent months were given the right to vote, run for public office and to work in lingerie shops.

But women still do not have the right to drive an automobile in urban centers or travel abroad without a male guardian.

By participating in this summer’s London Olympics, Saudi women move a significant step closer to gaining rights that by competing on the international stage in football, basketball and other fields. The IOC will make a final decision on Saudi Arabia’s proposal in May.

Tara Umm Omar, a popular Riyadh-based blogger who advises women on Islamic and marriage issues, contends that the earliest Muslim women routinely engaged in sporting events.

“Islam encourages modesty for women, and to my knowledge there is nothing in the Qur’an and Sunnah [the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad] that discourages sports or exercise,” Omar told The Media Line. “The prophet raced Aisha, his wife, twice in their lives. Women rode horses in jihad excursions. Doesn’t that count for exercise? In fact, they are doing so in full view of men, albeit while covered.”

Fouzia Muhammad, 51, a teacher in Madinah, told The Media Line, that she now sees possibilities for her youngest daughter to compete in organized sports.

“I never had the opportunity to play sport when I was a teenager, and neither did my oldest girls,” Muhammad said. “But my youngest is 12. Hopefully by the time she is in secondary school, the government will see the benefit of having girls play sport.”

A likely candidate for the summer games is 18-year-old Dalma Rushdi Malhas, a Saudi equestrian who captured the bronze medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics.

Malhas’ medal win followed years of training. There are few, if any, Saudi women capable of competing at the Olympic level in any sport. However, the IOC often provides waivers to allow developing nations to send athletes under special conditions.

Although Saudi sports broadcaster and amateur footballer Reema Abdullah announced this week that she was named as one of 8,000 people to carry the Olympic torch in pre-games events, not all Saudis are convinced female participation is a good idea.

Saudi women who have made inroads in generally regarded masculine professions have not fared well. Saudi race car driver Marwa Al-Eifa and film director Haifaa Al-Mansour have garnered little support or attention from the Saudi media for their groundbreaking efforts to help Saudi women gain a foothold in sports or the arts. Both woman work in Dubai, where they can freely pursue their professions.

“There’s nothing special about these kinds of women, who show off to gain fame,” said Maryam Abdulkader, 41, a marketing professional based in Jeddah. “Why should Dalma Malhas be a role model for girls when every curve of her body is exposed for the world to see? My husband could never show his face to his family again if our daughters chose this path.”

Abdulkader echoes a wide-held belief among conservative Saudis that public displays of athleticism by women is shameful. Female role models should be limited to religious figures, such as the prophet’s wives, Aisha bint Abi Bakr and Khadija bint Khuwaylid, she said.

“Saudi Arabia is being pressured by the West to conform to their idea of morality,” Abdulkader said. “They have taken the hijab and made it a weapon against us. There can’t even be a discussion of Islamic modesty without Westerners turning it into some kind of extremist thought perpetuated by crazy Saudis. They [the IOC] will slowly chip away at a woman’s modesty to conform to their idea of what a athlete should wear and soon women will be stripped of all dignity.”

Umm Omar sees it differently, noting that Islam allows wiggle room. “As long as Muslim women are not compromising their religion and observing hijab, why not take advantage of concessions in Islam where it does not explicitly prohibit them from participating in sports like the London Olympics?” she said.

Umm Omar pointed to many sporting events that allow women to remain modest yet competitive.

“There are some sports where Muslim women can observe hijab and not be encumbered by their sports outfits, provided it is designed in a specific way to not impede their movements yet maintain modesty, like in the martial arts, fencing, skiing, equestrian, archery and shooting,” she said.

Prince Nayef said as much when he told the London-based Arab newspaper Al-Hayat that Saudi women can participate in the Olympics as long as the events “meet the standards of women’s decency and don’t contradict Islamic laws.”

Christoph Wilcke, Human Right Watch’s senior researcher in Germany, remains unconvinced. “While tokenistic participation is welcome, it wouldn’t change our position that the IOC should affect more systemic change,” he told The New York Times this week.

Umm Omar said that getting Saudi women into the Olympics is only the first step.

“It really depends on the woman’s understanding of what constitutes hijab and covering the ‘awrah [intimate parts of the body],” Umm Omar said. “This varies from different sects down to the individual. If she believes that wearing pants is haram [forbidden] unless covered by a garment that doesn’t show the shape of her legs, how will she compete in this way? Can she compete this way? Would the IOC allow her to complete this way?”

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

January 3, 2012

News Analysis: Saudi Arabia — ‘Female Body is Battleground in The War to Stem Reform’

By Rob L. Wagner


3 January 2012

As Saudi women celebrate their progress in gaining voting rights and expanded employment opportunities, conservatives have intensified their campaign to marginalize those achievements in a new round of attacks targeting liberal Saudi writers and thinkers sympathetic to the women’s movement.

Saudi newspaper columnist Saleh Al-Shehi made a vague critical comment on Twitter at the Saudi Intellectual Forum at Riyadh’s Marriott Hotel that men and women were behaving “shamefully” by socializing during breaks. He implied Saudi men are aiding and abetting the corruption of women in the name of progress. One leading woman writer described the tweet as opening “the gates of hell.”

Saudi Arabia’s internal cultural and religious wars over the last decade have focused on women’s rights issues almost to the exclusion of everything else. Voting, running for public office, employment, education and women’s bodies rarely go unmentioned among religious conservatives railing against the perceived corrupting influences of the West. In essence, the female body has become the battleground in an ongoing war to stem reform.

Saudi women activists and Islamic feminists over the past year have aggressively pursued male allies to help advance their cause. And many forum participants offer varying levels of support to better integrate women into society.

Conservatives, however, see the changing role of women a threat to the stability of society, especially considering that gender segregation is ingrained in the daily lives of all Saudis.

Al-Shehi’s Twitter shot heard throughout the kingdom took on a life of its own on Facebook and the online Saudi newspaper Mmlkah (Kingdom), which reported the incident. The coverage gave conservatives ammunition that Saudi Arabia’s liberal writers and intellectuals crossed the line with flagrant immoral behavior.

The Saudi Intellectual Forum was the second conference held in eight years to bring together more than 1,000 writers and thinkers. A key speaker was Princess Adela Bint Abdullah, daughter of King Abdullah and the wife of the kingdom’s education minister, Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah Bin Muhammad Al-Saud. Among the attendees were author Abdo Khal, winner of the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his book “She Throws Sparks.” Khal often writes about individuals living on the margins of Saudi society, which led the Saudi government to ban some of his work as un-Islamic. Also participating was Saudi novelist Badriah Al-Bishr. The conference concluded Dec. 29.

Al-Shehi’s tweet in Arabic said, “I have believed that the so-called enlightenment culture project in Saudi Arabia revolves around women.” He added that it was shameful. Al-Shehi tweeted during a break in events while in the Marriott lobby crowded with men and women. Almost immediately, photographs circulated online showing Khal and other men speaking in close quarters with Saudi women. Mmlkah implied the photos were taken at the forum, but were actually taken at a 2010 Qatar conference. The tweet, according to some participants, implied that Saudi intellectuals and writers were not promoting cultural awareness, but pursuing an agenda of corruption.

A Facebook user identified as Lamh Al-Khawater from Bahar Al-Makhatr (some thoughts from the sea of danger) posted a link to the Mmlkah article on the popular Facebook page run by Dr. Sabah Abu Zinadah. Zinadah writes on social issues and has more than 5,000 followers. Al-Khawater wrote, “Does being educated mean to strip off our values and our morality and cross the red lines?”

Coverage from Mmlkah featured several photographs of forum participants and screenshots of the tweets. Al-Shehi’s comments earned praise from Sheikh Muhammad Al-Oraifi. “(He) is a good man and I have found him smart, wise and educated and (he) cares about his country and religion,” he wrote.

Dr. Sunhat Al-Otaibi wrote on Facebook that, “Saudi Arabia’s new elites have turned to eve-teasing (flirting) and exchanging numbers and dates and shameless behavior. (It’s) a Westernizing project to corrupt women.”

Khal threatened Al-Shehi with a defamation complaint if he did not apologize, but the harshest remarks came from Saudi writer Lamia Baeshen, an academic specializing in English literature. She invoked an Islamic rebuke that shakes up even the most stalwart Muslim conservative. “Hasbi allahu wa ne’mal wakeel (“Allah alone is sufficient for me and is the best trustee of my affairs.” Muslims generally interpret this as “I delegate Allah as my attorney to give me justice from you”),” she wrote on Facebook.

“You have opened gates of hell,” she added.

By threatening a defamation complaint, or more accurately libel, Khal raised the stakes in the war over cultural values, attitudes about women’s social behavior and the price paid for damaging reputations. While the burden of proof for defamation and libel is set high in Western democratic countries, the threshold is much lower in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi’s honor and personal and religious reputation often are the keys to professional success. A Saudi can face professional and personal ruin if his religious faith and morality are impugned and the allegations go unchallenged.

Yet, as personal attacks via Twitter and Facebook grow and the ironclad protections against libel once found in Saudi print media diminish, establishing personal and professional harm has become more difficult.

Westerners are often baffled over controversies involving men and women socializing in the same room, but Saudi society strictly adheres to gender segregation to avoid improper conduct. Separating men and women goes to the heart of Islam’s definition of morality. Men and women meeting in the lobbies of Jeddah’s upscale hotels are relatively common, but Riyadh hotels follow a stricter code of conduct. However, Riyadh’s Marriott Hotel staff members often overlook such interactions since foreigners often can only conduct business with Saudi businesswomen in a public lobby.

Some Saudi journalists view the Marriott incident as an expanded effort by conservatives to tame influential male intellectuals supporting the suffrage movement. Until last year, women activists have largely fought the battle alone. In 2009, 13 Saudi women journalists complained to the Ministry of Interior that the online newspaper Kul Al-Watan defamed them by alleging that “women journalists rely on illicit relationships with newspaper bosses to get support and fame.” In March 2011, Amal Zahid and Amira Kashgari, prominent writers on women’s issues for Al-Watan, were banned from writing.

One Saudi woman journalist said the mere suggestion of immoral behavior not only could leave a career in tatters, but also create a roadblock and even reverse advances in women’s rights.

“It’s not necessarily religious people who think this way,” she said. “It’s people blinded by backwardness and tribal culture. You look at what happened in the Marriott lobby and say to yourself, ‘How silly, it’s a big deal over nothing.’ But it is a big deal. If the men who support our cause are silenced for fear of being accused of corrupting Saudi women, we will get nowhere.”

November 29, 2011

Deadly Blaze Throws Spotlight on Saudi Girls Schools

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

29 November 2011

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – The scene was chilling to watch: Three young girls, clad in their black abayas, dropping one by one from the third-floor window shrouded in billowing black smoke as their school went up in flames.

The fierce fire that burned Baraim Al-Watan Girls’ School in the Al-Safa District on November 19 left three teachers dead and 56 students and school personnel injured. It was reminiscent of the 2002 Makkah Intermediate School No. 31 fire that killed 15 girls after members of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice forced the victims back into the burning building to retrieve their abayas, the long black cloak that covers women from head to toe.

Killed in the Jeddah blaze were teachers Souzan Al-Khaledi, Reem Al-Nahari and Ghadeer Katoua. Al-Khaledi was fatally injured after jumping from a third-floor window. Al-Nahari and Katoua died from smoke inhalation. Katoua was also deputy director of the primary school. Civil Defense investigators determined that five students playing with matches started the fire in the school’s basement.

This time the commission didn’t interfere in evacuating the building, but the issue of school safety, first raised after the 2002 Makkah blaze, remains today. It also points up the significant difference between the resources allocated to boys’ and girls’ education even as the kingdom has promised to improve the status of women. Two years ago, King Abdullah opened the first co-educational university and appointed Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez as deputy education minister, the first women to ever hold such a post.

According to teachers employed at Saudi girls schools, little has changed in nine years.

Like the Makkah School, Baraim Al-Watan Girls’ School was in an aging rented building not designed to accommodate school students, that crowded some 750 students inside. The two schools lacked safety equipment and adequate emergency exits, and its ground-floor windows were barred, according to Civil Defense officials.

A teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is not authorized to speak for the Ministry of Education, said there are significant differences in safety features between boys and girls schools.

“Most of the boys schools are specifically designed to be schools,” the 40-year-old teacher told The Media Line. “Boys schools are not rented, and are all equipped with big yards for sports to play football and basketball. They are surrounded by huge open areas.”

She added that classroom doors are usually left open and classes are often held outdoors.

Privacy concerns by the Ministry of Education require a different environment for female students, the teacher says.

“Girls schools are usually rented and redesigned for privacy,” the teacher said. “Though they say there is a rule against it, the windows usually have bars. The girls don’t have allocated spaces for sports, so the yards are very small. It’s like a prison.”

A defining feature of virtually all Saudi public schools for girls is the tightly controlled access to school grounds. Fathers routinely drop off their children at the front gate, but rarely enter school grounds. Mothers have greater access, but still must pass muster from the guard at the gate to enter. Many Saudi girls schools feature high walls surrounding the building with no other entries or exits other than the main gate. Likewise, female colleges and universities have strict rules that prohibit students from leaving campus without authorization.

Hannan Al-Harthy, a former student at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah, told The Media Line that it is policy at virtually all female universities to lock students in their dormitories for the weekend unless they have permission to leave the university. Guards padlock all exits and only male guardians pre-approved by the university can retrieve the student to leave campus for a social visit.

“I never thought about the safety implications then, but in retrospect we were locked in a big box cooking food, lighting candles – basically playing with fire, if you will – without thinking of the consequences,” Al-Harthy said.

An estimated 4.6 million Saudi children attend public primary through secondary schools. About 2.2 million are girls, a jump from 33% of the student population in 1975 to about 48% in 2009. Girls schools accounted for about 48% of the Ministry of Education’s schools budget of 122 billion Saudi Riyals ($32.5 billion). Although the education ministry has spent considerable money on infrastructure improvements, many girls schools still lack the larger modern campuses and more comfortable environment boys enjoy.

However, Arwah Aal Al-Asheikh, owner of Baraim Al-Watan, told the Arabic-language daily newspaper Al-Madinah that her school had up-to-date safety equipment and features, including emergency exits, fire hoses and sensors. She said the building meets the standards of an educational facility.

Yet Civil Defense fire investigators reported the emergency exits were not used to evacuate teachers and students. They said safety training appeared inadequate because the children panicked when they attempted to board a rescue helicopter hovering over the roof the building.

Taif Saeed Al-Qahtani, 12, who jumped from Baraim Al-Watan’s third-floor window, told the Saudi newspaper Al-Arabyia that she remembers nothing after her leap to safety. Her father, Saeed Al-Qahtani, said he learned from his daughter that school officials had no proper crisis-management plan in place to allow school staff to organize an “orderly and safe” evacuation of the building.

Perhaps most evident in skirting safety guidelines were bars placed on all first floor windows.

An investigation is underway to address the school’s safety issues. Prince Khaled Al-Fasial, emir of the Makkah Governorate, appointed a five-member panel consisting of representatives from the Saudi General Investigation Department, the Makkah Governorate, Criminal Investigations, the Saudi Electricity Company and Civil Defense to conduct a probe of the causes of the fire and the events leading to the deaths.

Meanwhile, Abdullah Alami, an economist and women’s rights activist based in the Eastern Province city of Dhahran, and Saudi journalist Jamal Banoon in Jeddah launched the National Safety Campaign to address commercial and educational building safety issues.

“School officials claim their facilities have all safety measures, including emergency exits, in place as specified by the Civil Defense,” Alami said. “Our task is to review defects related to electricity, roads leading to the school buildings, emergency exits, fans, lighting and wirings. We intended to look at distribution panels, iron fences on windows, gates, gas cylinders, air conditions and refrigerators in school.”

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

October 21, 2011

Obstacles Likely to Remain in Voting Rights for Saudi Women

By Rob L. Wagner

Peace and Conflict Monitor (University for Peace)

21 October 2011

Saudi King Abdullah’s royal decree giving women voting rights and issued just days before the Sept. 29 municipal elections, upstaged the kingdom’s second round of polling in six years. The decree, if implemented in 2015 as promised, helps legitimize a flawed election process that only allowed men to vote. It also promises to bring significant change to the lives of Saudi women if government authorities charged with its implementation follow the spirit of the decree as the king had intended.

The Sept. 29 municipal elections, in which 1.2 million Saudi men were eligible to cast ballots for 5,323 candidates running for 2,112 council seats, were to demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s commitment to developing a democratic process at the local government level. It was only the third round of elections since 1962. Voter turnout in September, however, was light. Campaigning by candidates paled in contrast to the onslaught of text messaging that dominated the 2005 elections. In addition, enthusiasm among voters waned since 2005 as it became apparent that public participation at municipal council meetings failed to materialize. [1][2]

Attention among Saudis and Western observers now turns to what role female voters will play in the 2015 municipal elections. The chief concern among Saudi women activists is whether the four-year wait will jeopardize the implementation of the king’s decree. The ramifications of King Abdullah’s decree giving women voting rights are immense. Yet activists are wary that reform is really underway. [3]

Saudi Arabia has long ignored external pressure to implement wide-ranging reforms that would bring the kingdom closer to the Western ideal of democracy. A $38 billion social benefits package announced in March was King Abdullah’s perceived response to the then-burgeoning Arab Spring movement. Western media interpreted it as a bribe to encourage Saudis to stay off the streets. Most Saudis recognized the benefits were in line with annual packages awarded usually each December. [4] [5] [6]

Saudi Arabia, however, is not immune to the Arab Spring. The Saudi government, no matter how much it wished to isolate itself from the growing clamor of regional protests, soon interfered in Bahrain’s domestic affairs to contain protesters demanding constitutional reforms. The kingdom also provided support to Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen as anti-government protests continued to gain momentum since January.

The unexpected beneficiary of the Arab Spring on kingdom’s domestic front is the fledgling Saudi feminist movement that has made gains since March. These advances culminated with women winning the right to vote, run for election to municipal council seats and accept appointments on the quasi-legislative Shoura Council.

More than any ruler in the Middle East, King Abdullah has always been in touch with his feminine side. Since he assumed the throne in 2005, he has taken steps towards reform despite considerable resistance from religious conservatives. Part of his efforts was to shift Saudi women from the margins of society to more prominent roles.

Laying a Foundation

Consider two critical steps Saudi Arabia is taking that directly impact women’s rights:

  • The Shoura Council is close to finalizing a codified Sharia system that will be an immense boon to women struggling for equal rights in domestic courts. Codified gender-neutral Sharia would severely restrict Saudi judges’ reliance on tribal customs and traditions in rulings. Under the proposed codified new system, but remaining true to Islam, guardianship rules face revisions that could allow Saudi women to obtain divorces without patriarchal meddling and to pursue more business and educational opportunities. The caveat to this proposed landmark legislation is just who will interpret Sharia. Religious conservatives could cement their authority over the rights of women, although there are enough liberals on the Shoura Council to provide a more equitable interpretation. [7]
  • King Abdullah’s university scholarship program starting in the 2007-2008 academic year gave virtually every qualified Saudi female student the opportunity to study abroad. In 2010, Saudi women undergraduate and postgraduate students accounted for 25 percent of the 15,600 Saudis studying in the United Kingdom. Approximately 6,000 women are studying at universities in the United States. Worldwide, 20.5 percent of all Saudi students on full government scholarships are women. An estimated 56.6 percent of all Saudi university students in the kingdom are women. Nearly 60 percent of Saudi businesswomen have university degrees with one-third of those degrees earned at Western universities. [8]

Assuming the Shoura Council does indeed follow through with its plan to codify Sharia, these gains establish a foundation for the new series of women’s rights prompted by the Arab Spring and implemented by King Abdullah. Following the king’s return from medical treatment in Morocco in March, the Saudi government dithered over its next step in women’s rights as it engaged in its passive-aggressive relationship with religious conservatives. The Ministry of Labor’s attempts to minimize gender segregation in the workplace and allow women to work as clerks in lingerie shops faced indifference if not outright obstinance. And the coeducational King Abdullah University of Science & Technology opened in 2009 still rankles clerics to no end.

Although Saudi Arabia rarely accedes to the demands for reform from the international community, King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, among other more liberal-minded royals, recognize that the government can’t treat women as chattel.

However, whatever modest gains Saudi women have made are by no stretch of the imagination guaranteed to remain. Rather, all that Saudi women have achieved could very well be wiped out if religious extremists replace older liberal Saudis in high-level ministerial positions as recent changes in high-level shuffling indicate.

Driving Ban

Still, the Arab Spring knocked down some long entrenched barriers. A case in point is the driving ban that denies women the ability to enjoy affordable and convenient transportation. Saudi women initially viewed the West’s demands to end the ban as a tempest in a teapot. But the Arab Spring emboldened them to make the issue a rallying point to insist on greater rights that would help erase the indignities Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal society heaps on its women.

The arrest of Manal Al-Sharif in May for driving in the Eastern Province and the subsequent June 17 women driving demonstration proved the necessary catalyst for change. Al-Sharif was the icon for the burgeoning Saudi feminist movement. [9]

The government has done little to prevent women from driving since June 17. There has been no crackdown, and no arrests or harsh punishment meted out that echo the 1990 Riyadh driving protest led by 50 women. With the exception of a rogue judge who sentenced one Saudi woman to 10 lashes for driving without government permission, which was vacated by King Abdullah, few women driving cars have run afoul with traffic police. The Saudi government’s apparent indifference puts in doubt whether the driving ban even exists anymore. In essence, Saudi women have won the right to drive given the government laizzez-faire attitude. Eventually Saudi women must drive, but Riyadh seems to have thrown the ball in the women’s court. [10]

While Riyadh sees no need for a royal decree to decisively end the driving issue, it took a different approach when King Abdullah gave women voting rights. This is a consolation prize in lieu of a royal degree granting women driving rights, but it’s also more significant. Riyadh saves face by not succumbing to international pressure on the driving ban and it gives women modest, but still restrictive, rights that tacitly acknowledge the calls for democratic reform brought on by the Arab Spring.

The problem is that women don’t vote until 2015 and won’t take a seat on the Shoura Council for another 18 months. The lengthy time it will take to implement the decrees makes them vulnerable to unwanted changes that could lead to no voting rights at all. It’s no easy task to rescind a royal decree. Only another royal decree can do that. King Abdullah is not likely to rescind his own decrees and he prefers to ignore the complaints from the religious conservatives of giving women too much. [11]

However, ministerial authorities charged with the implementation of the decrees could very well erect roadblocks. Interior Minister Prince Naif, for example, has gone on record as saying the need for women to drive is exaggerated. He is a champion of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. He consistently aligns himself with religious hardliners. [12]

If Saudi women rest on their laurels following their hard-fought battle to win the rights they achieved, then they may find themselves tucked away inside their homes. In the view of Saudi women’s rights activists, the battle is not just winning rights, but organizing efforts to keep them. One concern is that religious conservatives continue to interpret Sharia, the wants and needs of Saudi society, and, ultimately, the rights of women.

By taking seats on the Shoura Council, women can create an organized lobbying effort to push for a more gender-neutral interpretation of Sharia, particularly on issues of male guardianship and travel rights. [11]

Saudi journalist Samar Fatany notes that appointments to the Shoura Council allow women to address “the challenges that have hindered their progress, such as the ban on women driving, the reluctance of the public to support women in leadership positions, the strict culture of segregation within society …” [11]

Flawed Elections

Regardless of King Abdullah’s intentions and the future of women in the electoral process, there is little evidence that the kingdom is ready for a Western-style democracy.

Hendrick Jan Kraetzchmar was an adviser to the Saudi government to help develop a municipal electoral process in 2004 for the 2005 elections. In a report for the London School of Economics’ Public Policy Group, Kraetzchmar wrote that Riyadh adopted some Western electoral procedures and rejected others. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the elections was the implementation of cross-district voting that allowed religious conservatives to win contests by attracting large numbers of voters.

In his January 2011 report, Kraetzchmar wrote, “Specifically, the Saudi case demonstrates that, by putting a premium on cross-district efforts at voter mobilization, the electoral system provided the institutional backdrop against which it was possible for Islamist candidates and their backers to coordinate successfully their campaigns and achieve impressive victories across the Kingdom.” [13]

Voter Interest Declines

The lack of voter interest in the 2011 had less to do with the victories of Islamic conservatives, and more with the virtually non-existent participation of Saudi citizens to influence council decisions. Council meeting dates, locations and agendas are rarely publicized and members could selectively choose who attends.

About 1.2 million Saudi men registered to vote, but some regions witnessed significant drops in voter participation. In Riyadh, the number of registered voters dropped from about 800,000 for the 2005 elections to just 300,000 in 2011. [14]

A poll conducted by the Saudi English-language daily newspaper Arab News found dissatisfaction among Saudis over the performance of the Jeddah Municipal Council. The newspaper found that 71.6 percent of the 387 polled Saudis characterized the council’s performance as “very bad” while only 15.2 percent the council’s conduct was “good.” Survey respondents complained of poor services and the “catastrophic” reaction to the November 2009 and January 2011 floods that left more than 100 people dead. [15] [16]

During the Sept. 29 election, Saudis also faced confusing instructions for polling center locations.

In Jeddah, the Complaints Committee of Municipal Elections voided the results of election in the city’s District 3 because poll center officials moved the district’s polling place to a different location just hours before voting began. The switch caused confusion when voters arrived at the original location and found it closed. [17]

Polling officials also reported that winners in some districts garnered few votes. Abdullah Al-Muhammadi, for example, received just 381 votes in the voided District 3 election in Jeddah. Abdul Aziz Al-Suraie earned 239 votes in Jeddah’s District 2. Khaled Bajammal received 163 votes in District 4 and Fouad Murad in District 5 garnered only 71 votes. In Riyadh, 177 candidates won seats on 45 municipal councils. Yet candidates fell well below in receiving 50 percent of the vote. In one Riyadh district, Fuad Abdulrahman Al-Rashid was the top vote-getter by receiving 44 percent of the vote. Waleed Abdullateef Sweidan took second place with 42.9 percent. [14]

Voter turnout was relatively low in the Eastern Province with 30 percent of the registered voters casting ballots. In some rural areas, such as Tabuk and Najran, turnout was closer to 50 percent.


The 2005 and 2011 municipal elections were experimental at best. The true test of a democratic election comes in 2015 if women cast ballots with no conditions attached. Voter enthusiasm is likely to increase if for no other reason than the novelty of voting for a woman. The 2015 elections are also likely to ignite the passions of Islamic conservatives who will not allow the issue of women’s voting rights to go unchallenged. Saudis can expect a concerted effort to tamp down female participation by appealing to male voters’ perceived religious duties.

Saudi women have demonstrated exceptional organization skills with such social media groups as Women2Drive, Saudi Women Revolution and the Baladi Campaign. By capitalizing on these skills, women are likely to rival the religious conservatives in organizing campaigns for public office to ensure women sit on municipal councils. These skills will also help women develop a strong, single voice in the Shoura Council to push legislation addressing equity in Saudi society.

[1] “Municipal Elections in Saudi Arabia in September” Arab News, 3 June 2011 [,%20%2012,000%20Candidates%20Registered.htm] (Retrieved 06-06-2011)

[2] “Men-Only Election Shows Limits of Saudi Reply to Arab Spring” by Glen Carey, Businessweek, Sept. 29, 2011 [] (Retrieved 30-09-2011)

[3] “Saudi Women, Israeli Women Both Need Social Change” by Elana Maryles Sztokman, The Jewish Chronicle, Oct. 7, 2011 [–Israeli-women-both-need-social-change—?instance=lead_story_right_column ] (Retrieved 10-10-2011)

[4] “Voters Disenchanted with Upcoming Saudi Elections NPR” May 8, 2011 [] (Retrieved 12-07-2011)

[5] “Saudi Women’s Vote: Does it Go Far Enough?” by Juan Cole, Informed Comment, Sept. 26, 2011 [] (Retrieved 18-20-2011)”

[6] “Saudi Women’s Vote Great News – If This Were 1911” by Susan Jacoby, The Washington Post, Sept. 28, 2011 [—if-this-were-1911/2011/09/28/gIQAdWgf5K_blog.html] (Retrieved 30-09-2011)

[7] “Saudi Arabia Gets Ready to Put Order in Its Courts” By Rob L. Wagner, The Media Line, Feb . 24, 2011 [] (Retrieved 19-10-2011)

[8] “Women in Higher Education: Saudi Initiatives and Achievements, Saudi Ministry of Higher Education” 2010 [] (Retrieved 19-10-2011)

[9] “Manal Al-Sharif Released” by Siraj Wahab, Arab News, May 31, 2011 [] (Retrieved 11-08-2011)

[10] “Saudi Woman Driver Sentenced to 10 Lashes after King Grants Women the Vote” by Donna Abu-Nasr, Bloomberg, Sept. 27, 2011 [] (Retrieved 9-10-2011)

[11] “Women in Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, What Next? By Samar Fatany, Global Arab Network, Oct. 18, 2011 [] (Retrieved 19-10-2011)

[12] “Driven” by Ebtihal Mubarak, Foreign Policy, June 17, 2011 [] (Retrieved 09-09-2011)

[13] “The First Democratic Local Elections in Saudi Arabia in 2005: Electoral Rules, the Mobilization of Voters and the Islamist Landslide” by Hendrick Jan Kraetzchmar, LSE Public Policy Group Working Paper No. 6, January 2011 [] (Retrieved 19-5-2011)

[14] “New Municipal Councils by Oct. 16” by MD Humaidan, Arab News, Sept. 30, 2011 [] (Retrieved 15-10-2011)

[15] “Dissatisfaction High Over City Council’s Role” by MD Humaidan, Arab News via, Sept. 15, 2011 [] (Retrieved 20-10-2011)

[16] “After the Flood, Rising Saudi Anger Getting a Response” by Rob L. Wagner, MidEastPosts, January 29, 2011 [] (Retrieved 08-08-2011)

[17] “Election Result in Jeddah District Nullified” by MD Humaidan, Arab News, Oct. 2, 2011 [] (Retrieved 6-10-2011)

September 10, 2011

Saudi Arabia’s Municipal Elections: Tough Lessons Learned from Islamic Conservatives

By Rob L. Wagner

Eurasia Review

9 September 2011

The Sept. 29 municipal elections in Saudi Arabia mark the second round of polling in six years and the third in almost 50 years. The latest scheduled elections ostensibly will bring Saudis closer to developing democratic ideals espoused in the West. However, the elections also have prompted criticism from Saudi activists who assert that the electoral system prevents half the population from representation by denying women the right to vote and that it gives an edge to religious conservatives.

The September elections followed a voter registration drive in May and a short period through early June that permitted candidates to register their campaigns. Ultimately, voters will go to the polls in September to elect men to 1,632 seats in 258 municipal elections. Half the municipal council seats throughout the Kingdom are appointed by royal decree. In 2005, 1,212 seats were open on 179 councils. Saudi authorities have banned women from voting or registering as candidates.

Although the Arab spring continues with violent clashes in Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, Saudi Arabia appears virtually immune to demands from Western nations and Saudi dissidents for more aggressive democratic reforms. Saudi King Abdullah’s announcement of the September elections followed his return from Morocco and coincided with the Tunisia and Egyptian uprisings in late February and March.

Yet there is little evidence to suggest that the municipal elections will become a Middle East template for Western-style democracy as envisioned by the United States and the European Union. The U.S.-backed 2006 elections in the Palestinian Territories that brought Hamas to power foreshadowed what the Arab spring brought to North Africa. In Tunisia, the conservative Islamic Ennahda Party has gained considerable power by using Friday prayers at neighborhood mosques to solidify their base despite warnings from the Tunisian government against using political propaganda in sermons. And in July, thousands of religious conservatives descended on Tahrir Square in Cairo in a show of solidarity. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had kept a low profile during the Egyptian revolution, has emerged as the strongest political party. If Saudi Arabia’s 2005 municipal elections were any indication, religious conservatives will also prevail in September, although in a much quieter fashion.

Long before the Arab spring, Saudi Arabia had been on a reform binge, albeit by modest Saudi standards. In 2003, King Abdullah helped established with then-King Fahd the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue to encourage free expression on domestic issues. Since 2005, King Abdullah inaugurated a new system of succession. He also created the National Human Rights Society, broadened women’s role in the workplace, and revamped government institutions to streamline bureaucracy and reduce corruption.

Perhaps the most radical reform was the establishment of an electorate not seen in Saudi Arabia since the early 1960s. However, few Saudis have seen tangible results from the elections since municipal council meetings are largely inaccessible to the public.

Hendrik Jan Kraetzschmar, who with the London School of Economics’ Public Policy Group, was part of a Riyadh team in 2004 to help Saudis establish democratic municipal elections. The Saudi government, he reported, embraced some Western electoral procedures and eschewed others. Most notably was implementing cross-district voting that enabled religious conservative candidates to secure large numbers of votes and win elections they otherwise would have lost if voting were limited to their own districts.

“Specifically, the Saudi case demonstrates that, by putting a premium on cross-district efforts at voter mobilization, the electoral system provided the institutional backdrop against which it was possible for Islamist candidates and their backers to coordinate successfully their campaigns and achieve impressive victories across the Kingdom. It also posits that it was this level of coordination, facilitated by the electoral rules that gave the entire campaign a distinctly ideological flavor, even though the elections were formally run on a non-partisan, individual-candidacy basis, Kraetzschmar wrote in his January 2011 study, “The First Democratic Elections in Saudi Arabia in 2005.”

Previous Elections

The 2005 municipal elections were not without precedent. Saudi Arabia held its first municipal elections in 1939, just seven years after the founding of the country. Little is known about this fledgling attempt at democracy, but King Saud bin Abdul Aziz permitted municipal council elections again, starting in about 1954, in part to blunt criticism from Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. These early efforts inexplicably ceased around 1962.

The Arabian American Oil Co., a consortium of U.S. companies that developed the Saudi oil industry and now owned by Saudi Arabia as Saudi Aramco, kept some records of the early elections process. Islamic scholars and reporters employed by Aramco monitored the elections from the beginning. Registered voters elected candidates to councils that had real power. Councils had the authority to build roads and acquire routes through eminent domain. Some councils had authority over electrical hookups.

How voters cast ballots depended on the region. Shiites in the Eastern Province often found themselves on the short end of the stick when pitted against the Sunni majority. In one election, voting took place similar to the U.S. Electoral College in which about 50 men represented about 20,000 residents in the region. Although Shiites comprised of about half the population, none of the 50 representatives were Shiites. Predictably, the election resulted in a Sunni landslide.

In other regions, older conservative landowners easily beat young businessmen, and middle-class entrepreneurs and mid-level managers. The minimum voting age was 18 or 21 depending on the district. In some districts, the local Emir determined who was eligible to run for office. The total number of votes, not percentages, elected candidates. In one election, 5,000 voters cast ballots among scores of candidates, but the winner received only 115 votes.

Poll monitoring by candidates’ supporters kept voter misconduct at a minimum. In Dammam, for example, monitors suspected several illiterate voters of casting ballots filled out by other people. Monitors ordered them to cast their votes a second time after voiding the first ballots. Not unexpectedly, the most organized candidates won council seats. Many candidates acknowledged the influence of the 1960 John F. Kennedy/Richard Nixon U.S. presidential race in how they approached their campaigns.

2005 Elections

For a country that had not experienced a municipal election in more than 40 years, voter enthusiasm for the 2005 municipal elections was remarkable. According to the Riyadh-based ASBAR Center for Studies, Research and Communications, older Saudis took the most interest in the elections. An estimated 73 percent of the registered Saudis voters over the age of 46 cast ballots. About 55 percent of registered Saudis voters between 30 and 40 years old went to the polls, while 43.5 percent of registered men between the ages of 21 and 29 voted. An estimated 55.5 percent of the registered voters held Bachelor of Arts degrees and 54 percent were government employees.

ASBAR painted a bright portrait of the 2005 elections. The study reported that 72.7 percent of the polled Saudis voted because it was an act of national pride and patriotism. Nearly 63 percent of the Saudis polled said they voted because the elections assured “every citizen’s right to vote.” And 48.3 percent said they voted because they wanted to encourage and support the elections.

However, the study also found that in some regions a high percentage of registered voters never went to the polls. In Al Baha, 41.9 percent of the registered voters didn’t cast ballots. In Makkah, 38.3 percent of the registered voters didn’t vote and 39.1 percent of registered voters in Riyadh failed to go to polling stations.

The study did not provide details of its methodology. Yet ASBAR reported that 59 percent of the surveyed Saudis opposed women voting and 72.5 percent didn’t want them on municipal councils. The study concluded that “there was a clear increase in the percentages showing the lack of support concerning women’s participating in the elections, whether in voting or as candidates. This was attributed to reasons related to traditions, norms and the weak qualifying of women.”

Architectural consultant Nadia Bakhurji, the first Saudi women to register her candidacy for 2005 elections only to have her application nullified, argues that female voter participation legitimizes the election. “In the past two years there have been positive steps in the progress of women and this would have been a natural step,” Bakhurji said. “There is no excuse for us not to participate.”

Bakhurji pointed out that contrary to the ASBAR study men are ready to vote for women candidates. She said the 13,000-member Saudi Council of Engineers has only 200 women on its membership rolls. Bakhurji said she was the only woman among 75 candidates running for a board seat, yet her male colleagues elected her to a second term. She also noted that Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez’s 2009 appointment as deputy education minister and the women elected to seats on the Jeddah and Riyadh Chamber of Commerces illustrate substantial progress. “Obviously women are on the path to higher decision-making,” she said.

Bakhurji’s allies like Dr. Hatton Al-Fassi, an assistant professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, wrote on the Arabic-language website that the government is doomed to “repeat past mistakes” by not permitting women to participate in the September polls.

Golden Lists

Saudi electoral regulations ban candidates sharing similar political views from creating alliances, slates or campaigning on issues outside of their local council districts. Yet a Golden List, sometimes referred to as the Recommended List, emerged in the weeks leading up to the 2005 election.

The lists featured candidates “approved” by local clerics or Islamic scholars and played upon the religious emotions of the voters. One Saudi journalist noted that Saudis are “weak” when pressed on matters of Islam and susceptible to ideological arguments. According to LSE Public Policy Group’s Hendrik Jan Kraetzschmar, telephone text messages bombarded voters with statements that convey such messages as, “These are the candidates who follow the principles and line of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). If you want the better for our Islamic and Arab society, vote for them.” Older voters were less likely to reject such arguments, thus keeping the Islamic slate of candidates from fragmenting.

This strategy had a stunning impact in every municipal council district. Candidates running on the Islamic Golden List ticket scored overwhelming victories in Jeddah, Makkah, Madinah, Riyadh, Dammam, Tabuk and Qaif.

Further, candidates on the Golden List greatly benefited from cross-district voting. Many candidates who won seats garnered significantly more votes than there were registered voters in their district. For example, a winning candidate in Jeddah received 9,090 votes, far more votes than the number of registered voters in his own district. More than half of his votes came from other districts.

The Golden List and the informal collaboration between candidates also illustrate the power of new communication technology and its influence on vote getting. While social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, played a minimal role in the 2005 elections, it’s likely to have a significant presence in the September 2011 polling.


Islamist electioneering, council transparency and the marginalization of women have prompted opposition from some Saudi liberals and women’s groups. A group of Saudi writers and intellectuals, which includes Saudi human rights activist Mohammed Fahad Al-Qahtani, released a statement in March 2011 that the group would boycott the September elections because the Saudi Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs failed to address concerns of the 2005 elections. The ministry also failed to explain why it cancelled scheduled elections in 2009.

The group complained the councils had no effective role in even the smallest issues affecting local municipalities. Election opponents also said the process diminished democratic practices because half the council members received their seats by appointment. The group also cited the exclusion of women for the second time in six years and the lack of public participation in council decision-making.

The primary reason for keeping women from voting is that the infrastructure and electoral procedures to allow women at polling stations were not ready, according to Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs. Authorities cancelled the 2009 elections, claiming they needed more time to evaluate how women should be included in the process.

However, the failure to allow women the right to vote sparked the launch of the Baladi Campaign by women activists. The Facebook-driven Baladi Campaign encouraged Saudi women to challenge the ban by attempting to register at local registration offices and demand voter identification cards. Two women successfully registered in the Eastern Province, but registration officials in other Saudi regions refused to issue women voter identification cards. Two women filed claims with the Board of Grievances to overturn the registration officials’ decision, but they failed.

The Baladi Campaign group argues that a woman’s role in Saudi society has “surpassed traditional limits” and that the ban violates international charters ratified by Saudi Arabia that prohibit gender discrimination. The group also cites religious texts and legislation. The group appealed to Saudi authorities to consider the negative perception of the Kingdom in the international community.

“Women in Saudi Arabia have a negative stereotypical image as being oppressed, completely marginalized, and incapable of being productive members of society. It is important to change this negative image in order to show that Saudi women are like all other women in the world, with their own concerns, hopes, capabilities and potentials and can express themselves in their own ways,” the Baladi Campaign said in a statement.

Saudi Women Revolution, another group of women activists using social media to garner support to overturn the driving and voting bans among other gender rights issues, has taken a more aggressive approach. Ignoring some Islamic requirements, Saudi Women Revolution seeks an end to the male guardianship laws in which a male member of the family has complete legal control over a woman’s right to seek higher education, a job or to leave the country.

The group is not seeking the “equal but separate” Islamic concept of women’s rights. Instead, the group embraces some feminist Western ideals. The group states: “Saudi women should have their complete political rights which are guaranteed Saudi men, such as running and voting for elections in municipality councils. Women should also be part of the Shoura Council and all state institutions, foundations, firms and ministers including ministers of justices and foreign affairs.”

In June, Saudi women activists won support from the Shoura Council, the Kingdom’s quasi-legislative body. The Shoura Council issued an advisory ruling that women be permitted to vote and run for municipal council seats. The Shoura Council determined that, “the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs should take the necessary measures to include female voters in municipal elections, in accordance with Islamic Sharia.” However, the recommendation does not include the September 2011 polling but future elections.

Council Transparency

Saudi’s enthusiasm for the 2005 municipal elections turned to indifference when it became clear that there would be little transparency as to how newly elected council members went about their business.

Nadia Bakhurji characterized council members conducting municipal business as a “complete blackout.”

A telling incident of how a fledgling municipal council works was broadcast in the 2010 MTV “Resist the Power! True Life” documentary. One segment chronicled Jeddah youth activist Ahmed Sabri’s attempts to have the Jeddah Municipal Council grant an audience to a group of women to discuss the lack of transportation available because of the country’s female driving ban. Following lengthy negotiations, the group received permission to attend one meeting. However, the council spent most of its time debating whether the men and women should be segregated in the council chambers. Sabri finally made his statement to the council. Several women in the audience followed with specific comments on their inability to conduct family business without adequate public transportation. The council made no decision and did not meet with the group again.


The Saudi municipal elections can be best described as ongoing experiment in political reform. To be sure, sidelining women is the central flaw in the electoral process. A separate, but equally important, weakness is the Shoura Council’s failure to pass clear-cut open-meeting legislation guaranteeing council transparency. The elections are meaningless without public access or participation in the council decision-making process.

However, the elections should to be placed within the context of Saudi Arabia’s attempts at reform following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Until the formation of the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue in 2003 under King Fahd, public discourse of domestic matters was largely taboo. The municipal elections broadened freedom of expression by creating a new relationship between Saudis and their government. The elections encourage public participation in government matters and demonstrate the Saudi government’s neutral position in the outcome of the elections.

Equally important to Saudis is that the elections comply with the tenants of Islam. Although the elections may not be a model of Western democracy, they are an important step towards fulfilling the requirements of Islam. The Holy Qu’ran, for example, twice cites Shoura, which is essentially mutual consultation. The Ash-Shura Verse 38 states, “And those who answer the call of Allah, and perform regular prayer, and who [conduct] their affairs by mutual consultation, and spend out of what we have given them.” In Al-Imran, Verse 159 states, “Thus it is a mercy of Allah that thou art lenient unto them; had you been cruel and hard-hearted, they would have surely dissipated around you; therefore, ask forgiveness for them, pardon them, and consult them on the conduct of [their] affairs, and when you are resolved, put your trust in Allah, Allah loves those who trust [in Him].”

For the first time in more than 40 years, Saudis enjoyed the right to register to vote or run as a candidate, vote in secret, have access to polling stations and public debate the elections’ outcome.

Discussion of social issues such as government corruption, women’s rights, health and even the development of cinemas, have only surfaced in the past six to eight years. Although the government tightened its control of the news media in 2011, the Saudi press had enjoyed relative freedoms in covering domestic and foreign policy issues. Municipal elections were a logical step in furthering public discourse.

Although religious conservatives managed to skirt some election rules regarding candidate alliances and exploit others such as cross-district voting, most voters did not take issue with the overall credibility of the election process.

Many Saudis remain critical of the lack of transparency in the municipal council and the failure of municipal employees to be held accountable for their decisions. This was evidenced during the 2009 and 2011 Jeddah floods that left scores of people dead and more than 10,000 buildings damaged. Saudis used Facebook and Twitter to criticize Jeddah municipal officials. Ultimately, Saudi law authorities arrested 50 municipal officials and businessmen on corruption charges stemming from mismanaging construction projects. While the criticism was not directed specifically at the Jeddah Municipal Council, Saudis sent a message that municipal leaders’ conduct is under scrutiny.

The 2005 and 2011 municipal elections are tentative steps towards a democracy within the context of Islam and shouldn’t be misunderstood as failing to embrace democratic ideals advocated by the West. Rather, if Saudis learn from both elections and implement changes to include women and develop municipal councils as true consultative bodies, then the Saudi Islamic electoral process will become compatible with Western-style democracy.


[1] Municipal Elections in Saudi Arabia in September [,%20%2012,000%20Candidates%20Registered.htm] Arab News, 3 June 2011 (Retrieved 06-06-2011)

[2] IPS: Islamic Forces Rise in Tunisia, IPS News, 31 July 2011 [] (Retrieved 08-01-2011)

[3] Egyptian Uprising: Islamists Lead Tahrir Square Rally [] BBC, 29 July 2011 (Retrieved 01-08-2011)

[4] Reform in Saudi Arabia: The Case of Municipal Elections [] by Mishal Fahm Al-Sulami, associate professor of Comparative Thought, Islamic Studies Department, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp: 113-135 (2008/1429 A.H.) (Retrieved 01-07-2011)

[5] The First Democratic Local Elections in Saudi Arabia in 2005: Electoral Rules, the Mobilization of Voters and the Islamist Landslide [] by Hendrik Jan Kraetzschmar, LSE Public Policy Group Working Paper No. 6, January 2011 [Retrieved 19-5-2011)

[6] Saudi Arabian Elections [] by Thomas W. Lippman, Saudi-U.S. Relations Information Service (SURIS) 19 November 2003 (Retrieved 16-07-2011)

[7] Evaluation of the Elections that Took Place in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [] ASBAR Center for Studies, Research & Communications (Retrieved 16-06-2011)

[8] Author interview with Nadia Bakhurji, 30 April 2011

[9] Saudi Election News [] (Retrieved 12-07-2011)

[10] Voters Disenchanted with Upcoming Saudi Elections [] NPR, 8 May 2011(Retrieved 12-07-2011)

[11] Declaration of Municipal Elections Boycott by Group of Saudi Writers and Intellectuals [] Jadaliyya, translation by Ziad Abu-Rish, 26 April 2011 (Retrieved 05-15-2011)

[12] Saudi Women Revolution Facebook [] (Retrieved 18-03-2011)

[13] Saudi Women Respond to Exclusion: Baladi Campaign (My Country Campaign) [] Jadaliyya, 16 May 2011 (Retrieved 30-05-2011)

[14] Women Launch Facebook Campaign to Participate in Municipal Elections [] by Walaa Hawari, 6 February 2011 (Retrieved 20-05-2011)

[15] Saudi Council Calls for Women to Get Local Vote [] Reuters, 6 June 2011(Retrieved 07-06-2011)

[16] Poll Panel Dismisses Woman’s Complaint [] Arab News, 27 May 2011 (Retrieved 27-05-2011)

[17] Rowdy Saudis: MTV’s “Resist the Power – Saudi Arabia” [] Muslimah Media Watch, 7 June 2010 (Retrieved 08-06-2011)

[18] MTV: Resist the Power! Saudi Arabia [] MTV, 24 May 2010 (Retrieved 08-06-2011)

[19] The Foundation for Democratic Advancement Electoral Fairness Research [] by Davood Norooi, 29 July 2011 (Retrieved 2 August 2011)

[20] After the Flood, Rising Saudi Anger Getting a Response [] By Rob L. Wagner, MidEastPosts, 29 January 2011(Retrieved 8 August 2011)

June 2, 2011

News Analysis: Intimidation Tactics Attempt to Silence Saudi Women Journalists

By Rob L. Wagner


June 2 2011

Tucked low in Manal Al-Sharif’s statement to the media this week was a plea to individuals to resist attacking her religious and moral beliefs after she sparked a public debate about Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban.

Saudi municipal police in the Eastern Province released Al-Sharif from jail on May 30. Law authorities had charged her with “violating the public order” by driving in Khobar and then posting a video of her driving on the Internet. In her statement, Al-Sharif said she would leave the driving ban issue to the discretion of King Abdullah. However, trailing in the wake of her release is a tattered reputation.

Al-Sharif said in her statement that she “was stunned to learn of the accusations hurled at my religious and moral beliefs” and the allegations had caused “serious harm.”

“I held my breath for those speaking in the name of religion and others —May Allah guide them rightly — to do me some justice, and that if I had done wrong to blame me only accordingly and fairly, without defaming my faith, creed, and moral system,” Al-Sharif said.

The statement has become an increasingly common refrain among Saudi women activists and journalists who write and blog about women’s rights issues in Saudi Arabia.

Conservatives anonymously attack outspoken women by questioning their morals and beliefs in Islam. Long-held speech freedoms in democratic countries have made Western journalists relatively thick-skinned to personal attacks. But Saudis view allegations of improper behavior as scandalous and creating great shame among family members. Publicly questioning a Saudi woman’s moral ethics damages not only her personal reputation, but also her professional credibility. Public shaming hurts marriage prospects and the ability to find employment.

As more Muslim women create blogs and write for newspapers and websites, online attacks — particularly in the comments sections of news websites — have grown in proportion.

“Whenever I write an article, I can expect some comments from readers raising questions about my sex life, or they comment on how I look in my photograph. They say I’m not a good Muslim girl,” a Saudi woman journalist told me recently. “Why? Because I wrote an article about equal justice for women in the courts.”

The newswoman said that her brother once read comments about a video interview she gave, and he “cried” about the effect the personal attacks would have on their parents.

“Obviously, some people feel that by attacking women’s religious beliefs and morals, they can silence them into submission,” the journalist said. “It’s almost as if it’s an organized effort to sideline us.”

The smear campaign became apparent in 2009 when 13 Saudi women journalists filed complaints with the Ministry of Interior accusing a local online newspaper of “defaming and distorting the image of the Saudi media.”

According to the English language daily newspaper Arab News, the Kul Al-Watan news website alleged, “that prostitution, alcohol and drugs have become widespread in Saudi society, and that women journalists rely on illicit relationships with newspaper bosses to get support and fame.”

Suad Al-Salim, one of the complainants, told the Arab News: “The report is offensive to Saudi media and Saudi women journalists. Saudi media have been able to build a relationship of trust and integrity with society. How will this relationship sustain after the publishing of this report?”

Last March, the highly respected Arabic language daily newspaper Al-Watan banned popular journalists Amal Zahid and Amira Kashgari from writing. Zahid and Kashgari often write on women’s rights issues. The newspaper cited no reason for the ban, but both women had complained of attacks on their morality without elaborating.

Kul Al-Watan, the same news website accused of defaming women journalists, reported that the firings “followed growing attacks through the Internet against Saudi female journalists as some consider this (writing about women’s rights) against Islam and local traditions.”

Many women journalists and activists continue to write about social causes despite efforts to marginalize them through slander. However, some Saudis have ratcheted up the rhetoric to encourage violence against women. A prominent Saudi sheikh recently announced that women demanding their right to drive a car deserve death, and a group of men created a Facebook page to wage a campaign to beat women who get behind the wheel.

Tougher media laws enacted in Saudi Arabia earlier this year include new standards for slander. The regulations ban individuals from writing “anything affecting the reputation or dignity of, or slandering or personally insulting, the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom or members of the Board of Senior Ulema, or dignitaries of the state or any of its employees, or any person of ordinary standing or any legal person.”

Yet journalists and people like Manal Al-Sharif that fall in the category of “any person of ordinary standing,” receive no such protection under the new law.

May 18, 2011

Saudis Engage in ‘Tug of War’ Over Women’s Right to Vote

By Rob L. Wagner


18 May 2011

Voter registration for the Saudi municipal elections ends on May 19 and Saudi women have made no progress in persuading the government to give them the right to vote.

Many Saudis have privately expressed their doubts about the wisdom of denying women the right to vote in the Sept. 22 municipal elections. Last month a small group of women staged a protest outside the voter registration office in Jeddah. In Makkah, a woman filed a lawsuit in administrative court against the Ministry of Municipal Affairs for denying women the right to register to vote.

Yet results from a poll released last month by the Riyadh-based ASBAR Center for Studies, Research and Communications conflict with Arab and Western media reports that Saudis generally support women’s right to vote. The study reported that 59 percent of Saudis opposed women voting and 72.5 percent were against women as members on councils.

The 772-page report, titled “The Evaluation of the Elections in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” only gave cursory attention to women’s participation in the municipal elections beyond the fact that poll respondents were not ready to have women cast votes. In fact, the study concluded that “there was a clear increase in the percentages showing the lack of support concerning women’s participating in the elections, whether in voting or as candidates. This was attributed to reasons related to traditions, norms and the weak qualifying of women.”

The study, however, painted a relatively positive portrait of Saudis’ attitudes toward the country’s tentative steps to achieve a measure of democracy.

The study reported that 72.7 percent of the polled Saudis voted in the 2005 elections because it was an act of national pride and patriotism. Nearly 63 percent of the Saudis polled said they voted because the elections assured “every citizen’s right to vote” while 48.3 percent said they voted because they wanted to encourage and support the elections.

Perhaps the most striking revelation of the study – aside from its conclusions about women’s rights – was the generational gap in voter interest. Three-quarters of the Saudi men who registered to vote were over the age of 46. Only 40.4 percent of Saudis between the ages of 21 and 29 registered to vote.

Architectural consultant Nadia Bakhurji believes that female voter participation legitimizes the election. Bakhurji said she was planning her candidacy in September’s municipal election when the government announced that no women would be candidates or allowed to vote.

“Honestly, the news was so surprising,” said Bakhurji, a board member of the Saudi Council of Engineers. “In the past two years there have been positive steps in the progress of women and this would have been a natural step. There is no excuse for us not to participate.”

Some Saudi men also complained the election would not produce tangible results, local government transparency or changing the way municipalities conduct business.

“The municipal council has not said a single word to the public since they were elected six years ago,” said Abdullah, 38, a high school teacher. “What would be the point of voting this year?”

Saudi men began registering to vote last month. Registration closes May 19 while council candidates can register their campaigns between May 28 and June 2. Voters throughout the Kingdom will cast votes for 1,632 seats in 258 municipal councils, a jump from 1,212 seats in 179 councils in 2005.

Saudis initially reacted to the 2005 municipal elections with mixed emotions, but quickly became enthusiastic as voting drew near. The election demonstrated a well-organized campaign by religious conservatives who issued a “Golden List” of candidates. The endorsements from religious scholars resulted in overwhelming victories for conservatives in Jeddah, Riyadh, Makkah, Madinah, Taif and Dammam.

Since the 2005 election, Saudis have heard little from the councils.

“It’s been a complete blackout,” said Bakhurji, who also was the first woman to announce her Riyadh municipal council candidacy in 2005 before the government banned women from participating. “I thought at first that maybe the municipal council was on a learning curve, but to my knowledge there’s hasn’t been very much done.”

The lack of interaction between the electorate and municipal council members appears to be only partly responsible for the lack of enthusiasm among some Saudis for this year’s voting. Political parties cannot organize and campaigning will be limited. And banning women from the polling booth has puzzled some Saudi men. “I understand why women could not vote in 2005, but again in 2011?” one Jeddah lawyer said. “There is no reason this time around.”

Bakhurji insisted that men are ready to vote for women candidates. She said the 13,000-member Saudi Council of Engineers has only 200 female members. Bakhurji was the only woman among 75 candidates running for a board seat and her male colleagues elected her to a second term. She also pointed to Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez’s 2009 appointment as deputy education minister and women elected to seats on the Riyadh and Jeddah Chamber of Commerces. “Obviously women are on the path to higher decision-making,” she said.

Dr. Hatton Al-Fassi, an assistant professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, wrote on the Arabic-language website that the government is doomed to “repeat past mistakes” by not permitting women to participate in the September polls.

Bakhurji acknowledged that the “country is divided towards the progress of women” and a “tug-of-war” has developed high in the Saudi government between liberals and conservatives about the pace of women’s rights.

The uprisings in neighboring Arab countries has put the spotlight on Saudi Arabia, which has tread lightly in issuing new reforms since King Abdullah returned from Morocco in February. Charting a path to guarantee more rights for women has taken a backseat to what the government sees as the more pressing issue of economic stability by solving the country’s unemployment among Saudi men. One Saudi journalist observed that a rough-and-tumble fully democratic election might unhinge the country at a time when it needs to keep the economy stable.

Bakhurji agreed that other issues are at stake as the government goes through the delicate process of holding elections. “It is not just about women,” she said. “The problem is universal. It is Saudis versus foreigners. It is about Saudi men not being able to get a job in private companies because they want foreign workers. It’s a disgrace.”

March 30, 2011

Saudi-Islamic Feminist Movement: A Struggle for Male Allies and the Right Female Voice

By Rob L. Wagner

Peace and Conflict Monitor
March 29, 2011

Saudi Arabian women have long sought to launch an Islamic feminist movement, but Saudi laws against public demonstrations and deep cultural and religious attitudes towards public displays of defiance have stalled efforts. Women are now turning to social media to garner support for a Saudi-Islamic feminist movement that specifically embraces gender-neutral Sharia to secure their rights to an education, to travel and to marry the partner of their choice. Activists, however, are rejecting Western feminism because of the perception that it promotes the individual over the family, and by extension the Muslim community.


The anti-government uprisings spreading across the Middle East have brought a renewed focus on Islamic feminism perhaps not seen since the 1990s. Arab women not only played a large role in demonstrations that ultimately toppled the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, but women are also demanding decision-making roles as new governments emerge.

Largely missing from the discussion of Arab women’s empowerment is the near non-existent feminist movement in Saudi Arabia. There is no organized effort from Saudi women that encourages cooperation with potential powerful allies in the royal family under King Abdullah. Women who have begun to explore a feminist movement also have not sought to give a face to a movement by approaching prominent female academics or activists.

Instead, Saudi women are bypassing traditional means of developing a grassroots campaign to secure their right in a patriarchal society by reaching out through social media. It is not a movement, but a tentative testing of the waters. Activists acknowledge a lack of unity among Saudis that continually stalls efforts to organize. Yet the revolutions in neighboring Arab countries have raised the consciousness of women who are questioning why Saudi society is marginalizing them. This consciousness has sparked the stirrings of what some women are describing as the potential for a “Saudi-Islamic feminist movement.” [1][2][3][4]

Islamic Feminism

According to the feminist historian Margot Badran, Islamic feminism “is a feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm. Islamic feminism, which derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an, seeks rights and justice for women, and for men, in the totality of their existence.”[5] Modern Islamic feminism was first used in a modern context by Iranian scholars Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Afsaneh Najmabadeh in 1992 and popularized by Saudi Dr. Mai Yamani in her book “Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives” (Ithaca Press, 1996). [6]

Secular Muslims embrace Islamic feminism that may include Western feminist ideals that are contrary to Islam, which is primarily to establish a single set of rules equally applied to men and women. Islamic scholar Amina Wadud enthusiastically endorsed Western feminism, particularly for Muslim women living in the West, in her book, “Qur’an and Woman” (Oxford University Press, 1999). [7] Some Saudi women prefer Western-style feminism by advocating liberation from Saudi rules, traditions and culture. They place a negative connotation on Islamic feminism by likening it has the age of Al Jaheleya, or ignorance from the pre-Prophet Muhammad era. However, conflating Al Jaheleya with Islam is offensive to most Saudi women, and the Western views held by these women hold little credibility among the majority. [8]

An ideal Saudi-Islamic feminist movement differs significantly from traditional Islamic feminism with Saudis rejecting Western feminism. Instead, young Saudi women like Rasha Alduwaisi and Marwa Al-Saleh argue that a Saudi-led feminist movement must include the rights accorded women in the Qur’an and specifically in Sharia. A codified gender-neutral Sharia in the Saudi judicial system could give women the rights they yearn. The emphasis in a new Saudi movement would eliminate non-Islamic customs and patriarchal interpretations to follow the true path of Islam. By following the true essence of Islam, Saudi women can marry whomever they please, obtain divorces without patriarchal meddling, travel freely, and pursue educational and business opportunities without interference. [9]

A Saudi-Islamic feminist campaign, however, is hampered by the failure to generate momentum to get a mass movement off the ground. Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for the Council of Foreign Relations and author of “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East” (Random House, 2010), said that public demonstrations and mobilization are treated as criminal offenses in Saudi Arabia, making it particularly difficult for women to form a robust movement. Social media will help, but key allies in the struggle for equal rights are men. She said, “Women can’t be expected to do it all on their own. Women’s movements have always received critical help from men around the world and throughout history. There are some powerful men who encourage women in Saudi today, but more male voices will be needed speaking out against injustices against women to enable more women to take the plunge.” [10] [11]

The influential Islamic scholar Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has been a longtime supporter of elevating the rights of women. And Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud criticized Arab countries for economically and socially marginalizing women. However, Al-Qaradawi’s more controversial views on Israel and the U.S. invasion of Iraq have sidelined any potential for a role in an Islamic feminist movement. Prince Alwaleed is not regarded as especially religious. [12] [13]

Marwa Al-Saleh is the founder and general manager of, a web design and Internet marketing company in Al-Khobar and a principal advocate on the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page. She argues that most Saudi women are unaware of their rights contained in Islam and view any kind of demand for their rights as conflicting with Islam. Rasha Alduwaisi, a 30-year-old Saudi mother who is also active with the Facebook campaign, is more blunt: “Saudi women are raised to be subordinate, and grew up with the society drilling in them that their issues are marginal.” [14]

Al-Saleh and Alduwaisi are among today’s 7.6 million Saudi women with the median age of 23. They came of age or reached young adulthood in a post-9/11 world. They are highly educated, entrepreneurial and technologically savvy. More than 60 percent of Saudi university students studying domestically and abroad are women. Saudi women under the age of 30 grew up with satellite television, the Internet and mobile phones. Their broadened view of the world far exceeds that of their mothers and older sisters. [15]

Western Influences and Conflicts

While Saudi women, especially those who have studied in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, marvel at the freedoms that the West has to offer Muslims, they say Western feminism is an anathema because it is perceived as a threat to Islamic societies. Coleman notes that many Saudi men view Western feminism as promoting divorce, promiscuity and a breakdown of the family. Feminism, as defined by Western standards, has such negative connotations that the word itself severely hampers any progress to galvanize women to develop a grassroots movement. [16]

Western-educated Saudi women, however, would be hard-pressed to say they have not been influenced by Western feminism. The feminist movement laid the groundwork in the late 1960s and 1970s to open doors for wider education opportunities. Among those opportunities are gender studies in university curricula. Muslim women’s exposure to the feminist influences in academia have broadened their thinking and sharpened their critical thinking skills. Yet they also recognize that bringing such a movement home is doomed to failure.

Some young university students like Rawan Mj Radwan see some accommodation for Western feminism thought. Radwan observes, “If women choose to take up the Westernized path such as let go of their hijabs and change everything they were brought up on just to please themselves then they’re doomed. But if Saudi women can look to find a midway station between Islamic values and the ways of the West, then success stories would be heard all around.” [16]

Perhaps the best example of the dichotomy between Western feminism and a Saudi-Islamic version is the family structure. Saudis perceive Western feminism as advancing the rights of individuals over the best interests of the family, and by extension the Muslim community. Islamic scholar Dr. Lois Lamya’ Al-Farugi points out that Western activists view arranged marriages as an assault on individual freedoms.

However, Muslims view such intense family participation in the future of marriage-age family members as advantageous to the individual, the family and the community as a whole because it strengthens the cohesiveness of the family. Arranged marriages instill safeguards to protect the harmony of the family. Promoting individualism threatens the very nature of social interdependence. [17]

Further, Western feminists seek what Al-Farugi calls a “unisex” society in which there is a single set of rules for both sexes with women assuming more traditional male roles. Al-Farugi wrote, “The roles of providing financial support, of success in career, and of decision making have been given overwhelming respect and concern while those dealing with domestic matters, with child care, with aesthetic and psychological refreshment, with social interrelationships, were devalued and despised.” [17]

The Western feminist ideal of the roles of men and women counters the deep-seated belief among Muslims, especially Saudis, that men and women are separate but equal. This is evidenced in the Qur’anic verse 33.35: “For men who submit (to God) and for women who submit (to God), for believing men and believing women, for devout men and devout women, for truthful men and truthful women, for steadfast men and steadfast women, for humble men and humble women, for charitable men and charitable women, for men who fast and women who fast, for men who guard their chastity and women who guard, for men who remember God much and for women who remember—for them God has prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward.” [17]

Although Western and Saudi-Islamic feminism are at the opposite ends of the spectrum of women’s rights, a balance, as argued by Radwan, is possible. Arranged marriages should be abolished and a woman’s right to marry the partner of her choice should be honored, but family participation and advice in that choice should not be ignored [18]

No Appropriate Saudi Leader

The question that remains, however, is how to shape the movement and what kind of image it will project. Seeking role models is not a habit that Saudi women indulge. Saudi female filmmakers, racecar drivers and pilots hold little appeal to young women because they are perceived as pursuing these professions at the expense of Islam. Their role models are generally confined to the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, Aisha bint Abu Bakr and Khadijah bint Khuwaylid. Aisha greatly influenced the Prophet’s thinking and he praised her in an often-quoted hadith, “Learn half of your religion from that red-headed one!” Aisha is said to be responsible for a great many hadiths, which are the sayings and deeds of the Prophet. Khadijah was a successful businesswoman before and after her marriage to Muhammad.

Several Muslim women have picked up the cause of Saudi women’s equal rights. Egyptian-born and Saudi-raised journalist Mona Eltahawy has struck a strident tone in recent years in advocating against the oppression of Saudi women. Saudi Wajeha Al-Huwaider founded the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia and waged a “No to the Oppression of Women” campaign to bring attention to domestic violence. Mai Yamani, a London academic and expert on Islamic feminism, is a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam and its treatment of women. [19] [20] [21]

None of these women, however, has garnered a following in Saudi Arabia because they are perceived as speaking to a Western audience and not Saudis. Eltahawy advocates a west-leaning feminism and supports France’s ban on the burqa. [22] Saudi women perceive Al-Huwaider and Yamai as too strident in their condemnation of Saudi society. [23][24] But the prevailing theme in numerous interviews with Saudi women is that Eltahawy, Al-Huwaider and Yamani do not wear the hijab. These activists do not present the image of how Saudi women perceive themselves. One Saudi journalist remarked, “If I was looking for role models, I’d want women who looked and talked like me, covered with the hijab and addressing me as a Saudi woman. Not some Western ideal of what a Saudi woman should be.”

In addition, young university students are reluctant to pick up the mantle for fear they will be perceived as engaging in un-Islamic behavior of vanity and pride.

Interpretations of Sharia

Yet even if a Saudi-Islamic movement takes root and the Saudi government’s reform agenda includes programs to level the playing field among men and women, much tougher issues stand in the way. For example, a major bone of contention among Saudi women is how domestic courts administer rulings.

The Saudi judicial system follows Sharia, a malleable set of guidelines that govern the daily lives of Muslims and dispenses justice in criminal and civil affairs. Sharia is widely interpreted by Islamic scholars, most of whom are graduates of Saudi Arabia’s Imam Muhammad bin Saud University in Riyadh. Yet Saudi judges often interpret Sharia based on their own personal experiences and views. Tribal customs and traditions also play a central part in many rulings. Tribal issues, in particular, seriously impact divorce and child custody issues to protect a tribe. Women often see favorable rulings going to husbands, brothers and fathers. [24]

The Shoura Council, Saudi Arabia’s consultative body, has been working since 2007 to codify Sharia to give consistency in criminal and domestic cases. This allows the courts to establish case precedents, thus taking away much of the power of judges who must refer to the rule of law instead of tribal customs and their own personal opinions. [25]

While codification of Sharia will be a giant leap forward in Saudi judicial reform, it also might be a case of being careful for what women activists wish for. Who interprets Sharia and how it is interpreted will have a long-term impact on the future of Saudi women. Middle East scholar Coleman notes: “Islam guarantees women many rights, but ultimately there are limits in interpretation. There are more progressive interpretations that can get women very far, but there will always be those who want a more conservative interpretation that will impede rights for women. Protecting those universal rights ultimately depends on a separation of the religious and legal spheres.”

Coleman added that what “rights Islam grants women is contentious subject—one that progressives and conservatives debate.” [26]

Saudi women do not necessarily want to debate every aspect of Sharia but lay claim to the undisputed basics in the Qur’an and Sunna: the right to an education, inheritance and not to be subject to forced marriage. Radwan said a common law would prevent interference from male family members who disagree with the choices of sisters or other female relatives, choices that are their rights in the first place. [27]


Saudi feminists have wisely steered clear of overtly incorporating Western feminist themes in discussions of a movement. The backlash among religious conservatives would be swift and damaging to efforts to engage Saudi society in meaningful dialogue about women’s rights. By the same token, Western feminists have generally displayed remarkable restraint by not demanding instant change in Saudi Arabia despite exhortations from some human rights groups. Saudi women recognize they are walking on a fine line between exerting pressure to achieve equality and radicalism. Yet it is not possible to separate Western and Islamic feminism. Saudi women can learn organizational methods and promote the less threatening aspects of the Western movement, such as employment and education, without compromising their religion or culture. The key to attracting Saudi men as supporters is to leave the Western rhetoric behind.

This also means advocating for leadership positions in government, law and business, but ignoring calls from some Islamic feminists to lead prayer and become muftis because it’s contrary to how Saudi women view Islam.

It has never been a major issue as to who speaks for Muslim women in the campaign for equal rights, but few Saudis would disagree that often appearances are everything in Saudi society. Without a powerful male figure in a ministerial position as a vocal ally, and without young hijab-wearing women speaking the same language as their male counterparts on a religious and cultural level, a Saudi-Islamic feminist movement is unlikely to get off the ground.


[1] Author interview with women’s rights activist Rasha Alduwaisi (11-03-2011)

[2] Author interview with women’s rights activist Marwa Al-Saleh (13-03-2011)

[3] Saudi Women Revolution Facebook [] (Retrieved 18-03-2011)

[4] Author interview with Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy for the Council of Foreign Relations (12-03-2011)

[5] Badran, Margot, Islamic Feminism: What’s in a Name?” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 17-23 January 2002 [] (Retrieved 11-03-2011)

[6] Yamani, Mai, “Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives (Ithaca Press, 1996)

[7] Wadud, Amina, “Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective” (Oxford University Press, 1999)

[8] Author interview with Saudi Western university student and former journalist Rawan Mj Radwan (14-03-2011)

[9] Alduwaisi and Al-Saleh interviews

[10] Coleman interview

[11] Coleman, Isobel, “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East” (Random House, 2010)

[12] Al-Qaradawai, Yusuf, “The Status of Women in Islam” [] (Retrieved 27-02-2011)

[13] Lemmon, Gayle Tzemach, “The Hillary Doctrine,” Newsweek, 6 March 2011 [] (Retrieved 07-03-2011)

[14] Alduwaisi and Al-Saleh interviews

[15] Index Mundi [] (retrieved 15-03-2011)

[16] Radwan interview

[17] Al-Farugi, Lois Lamya’, “Islamic Traditions and the Feminist Movement: Confrontation or Cooperation?”, undated [] (Retrieved 03-03-2011)

[18] Radwan interview

[19] Mona Eltahawy official website [] (Retrieved 01-18-2011).

[20] Khan, Riz, “Saudi Arabia: Fundamental Change?” Al-Jazeera English [] (Retrieved 22-02-2011)

[21] Dr. Mai Yamani official website [] (Retrieved 18-03-2011)

[22] Brown, Ryan, “In Defense of the Burqa Ban” Salon, 12 July 2010 [] (Retrieved 18-03-2011)

[23] Young, Jennifer, “Wajeha Al-Huwaider: A Brave Heart!” November 2009, Al Waref Institute [] (Retrieved 18-03-2011).

[24] Yamani website

[25] Wagner, Rob L., “Saudi Arabia Gets Ready to Put Order in its Courts,” The Media Line, 24 February 2011 [] (Retrieved 25-02-2011)

[26] Coleman interview

[27] Alduwaisi, Al-Saleh and Radwan interviews

March 20, 2011

Saudi Women Embrace Feminism — On Their Own Terms

By Rob L. Wagner
The Media Line
Published Sunday, March 20, 2011

Most reject Western ideas, but seek formula that blends with Islamic faith

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Perhaps one of the most significant developments emerging from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions is the growing Arab women’s rights movement that has spread to the anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain and Yemen.

Absent, however, from the chorus of women’s voices demanding equity in the workplace, freedom to travel and a role in government are Saudis, who have done little to join their Arab sisters to create a feminist movement. In fact, no such organized movement exists in Saudi Arabia.

“I don’t see signs of a feminist movement,” says Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “I see signs of rising consciousness among women—a questioning of why things are they way they are.”

Rasha Alduwaisi, 30, a Saudi mother, is a leading force behind the first tentative steps to galvanize women through the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page. She acknowledges a feminist movement is an uphill battle.

“There’s almost no organized effort whatsoever to try to obtain these rights we’re seeking,” Alduwaisi told The Media Line. “Saudi women are raised to be subordinate, and grew up with the society drilling in them that their issues are marginal. This upbringing in my opinion is playing a huge role in the reluctance and hesitation in taking the steps that such a movement calls for.”

Saudi Arabia has long stood apart from other Arab nations in how it treats its female population. Older generations of Saudi women through most of the 20th century were largely content with gender roles imposed by the patriarchal religious establishment. Post-secondary education for women was elusive until a minority of wealthy Saudi women began studying abroad in the 1980s. University education blossomed in the years following 9/11. Today, more than 60% of Saudi Arabia’s university students are women.

The rapid shift to educating Saudi women has given them a voice, but it also created a divide between today’s young females and their mothers’ generation. Disparate views on the role Saudi women play in society have contributed to a lack of unity. In addition, the ambitions of rural women, who may focus on economic survival in farming communities, contrasts sharply with educated urban women who may seek positions in government and business.

These differences have prevented the development of a grassroots to campaign.

“Public demonstrations and mobilization are treated criminally in Saudi for just about anything, so it’s particularly hard for women to form a robust movement,” Coleman told The Media Line. “Here, social media will help.”

Marwa Al-Saleh, founder and general manager of, a web design and online marketing company in Al-Khobar, promotes the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page with Alduwaisi. Al-Saleh says most Saudi women are unaware of their rights. “Sometimes they think their rights are against Islam.”

The definition of feminism remains a sticking point with young Saudis who say they want a feminist movement on their own terms, which includes Islam as a major component. Alduwaisi says she prefers a “Saudi-Islamic” feminist movement, noting that she wants rights that consider religion and a Sharia-based judicial system.

Coleman, who authored the book Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, which examines Islamic feminism, says Western feminism appears threatening to Saudi men because it’s perceived as leading to high divorce rates and promoting promiscuity. She noted the portrayal of women in American films and television feed negative stereotypes of Western women. “Islamic feminism provides a more comfortable alternative path toward change,” she says. “It can be seen as more culturally relevant and less threatening to core Islamic values.”

Alduwaisi and Al-Saleh reject the Western definition of feminism, although there is no shortage of Arab women speaking to the Western media on behalf of Saudi women.

For example, some prominent Saudi women, such as Wajeha Al-Huwaider and Mai Yamani, frequently address Saudi women’s rights on Western news shows. Yet they have little traction with women living in Saudi Arabia because their idea of feminism reflects Western concepts not compatible with Islam.

“These women represent the opinion of a minority,” Alduwaisi says. “So I don’t think many Saudi women would want to have them be the face of the movement. I believe if we want this movement to be a success we’ll need a more moderate or conservative face.”

A 29-year-old Saudi woman journalist, who asked not to be identified, says few young women have role models beyond the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, Aisha bint Abu Bakr and Khadījah bint Khuwaylid. “If I was looking for role models, I’d want women who looked and talked like me, covered with the hijab and addressing me as a Saudi woman. Not some Western ideal of what a Saudi woman should be.”

Al-Saleh says women’s rights critics who wave the warning flag of Western liberalism are looking for excuses to deny Saudi women a role in society. She points to neighboring Arab countries that have found room for women in the workplace and government. “Is Saudi Arabia the only Islamic country? Look at the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.”

Yet even an Islamic feminist movement faces significant challenges. Much like the Western suffragette movement of the early 20th century, the most vocal critics of Saudi feminism may be women. Rowdha Yousef and 15 other women, for example, launched the “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me” campaign in 2009 in reaction to calls to eliminate guardianship laws.

The push-pull of differing agendas makes empowering women slow going, although there are potential allies in powerful places to help create momentum. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal complained in February that Arab women were “economically and socially marginalized.” He routinely hires women in key corporate positions and makes it a point to showcase female entrepreneurial talent.

Princess Lolwah Al-Faisal has been a powerful ally in furthering the integration of Saudi women in the workplace and education by lending her support to several women’s groups. Princess Fatimah Kulsum runs a slew of welfare and charity groups for women. Princesses Adela bint Abdullah Al-Saud and Seetah bint Abdullah Al-Saud have emerged as the female representation in King Abdullah’s reform agenda by lending their names to various programs.

However, the larger issue should a Saudi-Islamic feminist movement succeed is just how to interpret women’s rights guaranteed in Islam.

“There are more progressive interpretations that can get women very far, but there will always be those who want a more conservative interpretation that will impede rights for women,” Coleman says. “Protecting those universal rights ultimately depends on a separation of the religious and legal spheres.”

Pending codification of Isalmic law (sharia) in the Saudi judicial system may resolve issues of interpretation, but the basic premise of sharia is that’s always applied in the context of time and place. Male guardianship, for example, is outmoded in the 21st century kingdom, according to activists.

Abuses of guardianship over travel issues also play an important part in the future of a woman’s movement. A hadith, which contains the words and deeds of Mohammed and pertain to matters of Islamic jurisprudence, states that women must not travel without a guardian if the journey takes longer than three days. Travel in modern society no longer takes three days. If an Islamic feminist movement were to take root, reinterpreting the hadith would be a core issue on the table.

“The first priority is to get rid of male guardianship on woman after 18 in everything: Education, travel, work, business, finances, medical services, government and marriage,” says Al-Saleh.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

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