Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

November 6, 2016

A Conversation with Saudi Women’s Rights Advocate Aziza al-Yousef

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

6 November 2016

Jeddah – When Aziza al-Yousef registered as a student at King Saud University in the Saudi capital Riyadh in the 1980s, she did not need her father’s permission. When her daughter enrolled in the same university in 2001, she was required to have her father’s signature on the permis­sion slip.

Yousef, 58, the mother of four sons and one daughter, has seen many changes in how Saudi women are treated in public and private institutions. She has witnessed a reduction of women’s rights in reaction to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran but has observed, in recent years, restrictions eased ever so slightly and slowly.

The retired professor — she taught computer science at King Saud University for 28 years — is leading a campaign to abolish male guardian regulations that require Saudi women to obtain permission from their father, brother, son or closest male relative to attend a university, travel or seek medical treatment.

“We are just asking to remove the government rule that affects our daily lives,” Yousef told The Arab Weekly.

Yousef recently attempted to deliver to the Royal Advisory Council a 14,700-signature petition seeking to abolish the guardianship regulations but she was rebuffed and told to mail it. She sent the document but has yet to hear back from the government. Whether the government is taking the petition seriously — it has ignored similar efforts — is unknown but a Twitter hashtag, #IAmMyOwnGuardian, has gone viral to help gain support for the cause.

Yousef said she is optimistic that changes can be made.

“We are used to 26 years of making demands,” Yousef said. “There is nothing we can do but to continue this thing. I hope the government treats this as an economic situation and we hope to get more allies. We have a young population with 50% under the age of 26. It’s time to listen.”

Saudi Arabia’s efforts to diversify its economy mean it must help female university graduates obtain employment in the private sector. They are an untapped resource that women’s rights organisers say can help turn around the kingdom’s sagging economy. The government hopes to increase women’s employment from 22% to 30% by 2030. Women have made progress in obtaining some rights, including appointments to the Shura Council and the right to vote and run for office in municipal elections.

However, the broader issue facing Saudis is not simply allowing women to travel without a man’s permission but how to interpret women’s rights in Islam. In a country where Saudis often ask foreigners to make the distinction between religion and culture, even Saudis can blur the lines. Throwing in government mandates affecting every female citizen only adds to the confusion. Where religious obligations end and culture and tradition, backed by government regulations, take over is often a mystery.

To Yousef and the signatories of the petition the difference in religious obligations and government mandates is stark.

“In Islam the man should be the breadwinner and the woman who gets pregnant and takes care of the household is not responsible for money,” Yousef said. “Islam does not say that women should not work or study but that she is responsible for her own actions and if she has a debt, she is responsible for that debt.”

Yet the very essence of guardianship in Saudi Arabia has morphed over more than three decades into one in which a man who earns the household income “must control the woman”, she said.

A woman under any interpretation of Islam is responsible for her own actions, Yousef noted. She added that if a woman “committed a robbery she doesn’t get half the punishment of a man” because she is female but “in the eyes of the government she is treated the same as a man”.

Conventional wisdom among Western observers is that educated Saudi women understand the difference between male guardianship as defined in Islam and arbitrary government regulations that limit women’s rights, but Yousef said supporters and opponents cannot be pigeonholed into one category.

“We have very educated women who are suffering because of the guardianship laws but we also have a lot of educated women who are firmly against eliminating guardianship,” Yousef said. “We have ladies who go abroad to study, get their PhD and then return and oppose what we are doing. There is no general rule of who is with who.”

She also noted that Saudis are pragmatic when it comes to opposing the petition’s goals: “People may understand the difference between rights for women in Islam and what the government is doing but they hold positions in government and they don’t want to risk their interests.”

Yousef grew up in a free environment in which her father was open-minded. She said she did not suffer the rigid patriarchal control that many of her peers experienced. “We were the lucky ones,” she said.

Yousef enrolled at King Saud University when she was a teenager. She dropped out after one semester to attend Virginia Commonwealth University in the United States, a 178-year-old institution known for its medical research. She was a wide-eyed, 19-year-old with limited English but became a fluent speaker possessing boundless self-confidence during her seven-year residence in the United States. She earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and returned to King Saud to complete her master’s degree.

Yousef said the changes she has seen gave her hope for the future but some of the changes can be discouraging; a two-steps-forward-one-step-back process that can be both frustrating and exhilarating.

She said since the mid-1980s she has seen dormitory rules, which kept female students as virtual prisoners, relaxed. It is a small, but nonetheless important, change in campus life. She has also seen that women, who in the 1980s could arrive and leave campus any time during the day, face restrictions.

“Now the gates are closed, so if a student finishes a class at 9 in the morning, she must wait until the gates open at 12 noon to leave,” she said.

It is a system that treats women as children with maddening inconsistency but it has not always been that way.

In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia was a closed society with strict cultural boundaries and specific, yet unwritten, rules for the roles of men and women. However, women conducted their lives relatively freely only to see that freedom slowly ebb away.

Yousef points to the 1979 Islamic revolution and the Afghanistan war in the 1980s as turning points.

“We had people making statements to young men that they had to fight the Afghanistan war, which brainwashed a young generation. It wasn’t even our war,” she said. “After the war finished, everything became corrupted and now it is difficult to correct it.”


February 26, 2012

Western Ways Woo Saudi Women

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

26 February 2012

Study abroad exposes them to new freedoms, raises doubts about returning home

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, England – When 26-year-old Sabah arrived at the University of Newcastle in northeast England in the fall of 2009 for her postgraduate studies, she did what many of her Saudi girlfriends had decided. She sent her legal guardian home and lived an independent life.

Sabah, who spoke on the condition that her real name not be revealed because she is not following the guidelines of the Saudi cultural attache, which supervises her scholarship, said neither her father nor mother feel the need to keep her on a short leash.

“I have my own flat, I take the train to the university and I study late into the night at the library,” Sabah told The Media Line. “It’s a life I thought I never would have experience. I owe everything to my parents, who trust me to make the right decisions. Now I must make a decision of whether I even want to go back to Saudi Arabia. My heart tells me to stay here, but my head says I have no choice but to return home.”

Sabah is one of more than 800 Saudi men and women studying at Newcastle. An estimated 110,000 Saudis studying worldwide and are part of King Abdullah’s Foreign Scholarship program. They are studying abroad with about 30% attending U.S. universities, 15% in the United Kingdom, 11% in Canada and 8% studying in Australia.  The rest are scattered in other, mostly Muslim, countries. The program was initiated in 2005 and the first wave of students with graduate and postgraduate degrees has already returned to Saudi Arabia.

However, many Saudi women like Sabah are facing a personal crisis as they ponder their future once they earn their degrees. It’s an issue so sensitive that few students were willing to discuss their lives in the West using their real names, fearing they would lose their scholarships and sent home.

Some women say they see efforts to tighten restrictions on their personal freedoms since the beginning of the Arab Spring. The heady feeling Saudi women felt following the June 2011 driving demonstrations to demand their right to drive has dissipated and replaced with heightened rhetoric among conservatives to stay at home.

A Saudi Ministry of Higher Education official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because sensitivity of the issue, says education and cultural attaché officials, who supervise the scholarship program, are aware of the discontent among some Saudi students.

“We understand our sisters’ concerns about job prospects when they return and some of the other obstacles they face, but they must fulfill the terms of their scholarship and any employment obligations they have,” the official told The Media Line. “They must come home after completion of their studies.”

Maha, who turned 31 recently and is preparing to graduate with an education degree from the University of California Berkeley, has a teaching job waiting for her in Taif that pays 3,000 Saudi riyals ($1,066) a month. “I can’t think of anything more boring,” Maha told The Media Line. “I have lived in California for four years. Jobs in my field pay about $2,700 a month and I would have none of the problems that I would face if I returned home.”

By problems, Maha points to the inevitable laundry list of expectations Saudi society places on her, including the type of job she can have. Like many young Saudi women on scholarships to Western universities, Maha accepted in advance a teaching job in a rural area after completing her studies.

“I’ll be teaching village kids and my colleagues will be village women who have never left the province. And the only jobs available are teaching. I don’t necessarily want to be a teacher, but that is all that is available,” Maha says. “My father is dead, so my brother will be my guardian. I will answer to him for everything and he’s already hinted he expects some of my salary and he will find me a husband.”

Maha and Sabah often grumble about the restrictions imposed on them on choosing their employment, their husband and travel, all of which require permission from a male guardian. It’s the unintended consequence of the king’s scholarship program. For some Saudi women students, they came, they saw and they want to stay in the West.

While some Saudi university students are flirting with the idea of remaining in Britain or the U.S., they acknowledge the enormous pressure of adapting to Western culture. “England, as much as I like it here, has a deep drinking culture and everybody’s sex life is an open book,” Maha says. “These are things I feel very uncomfortable about. Can I live in a culture with different moral values? I wonder.”

The idea of not returning home is also a single woman’s prerogative. Married Saudi women students have their husbands and children with them. Returning home, where their lives are comfortable, is not open to debate. “My married friends have everything they need in Saudi Arabia,” Maha says. “There’s no point in living here when they have everything they need at home.”

Yet the urge to remain in Britain or the U.S often has less to do newfound freedoms and more with the impact the Arab Spring has had Saudi Arabia. One student characterized the kingdom as closing in on itself. “It’s a battle of wills between the conservatives and the liberals, and the conservatives are winning,” says a Saudi male student attending Newcastle and asked not to be identified.

Sabah complains that women have been the most affected by a push among conservatives to stem the tide of reform championed by King Abdullah.  The campaign for the right to drive a car has faltered. Equally strong efforts by women activists to ease guardianship laws to provide easier access to jobs also have led nowhere. Promises to codify laws that give women more rights in divorce and child custody cases in Saudi courts also failed to materialize.

Sabah points to the disturbing trend among religious conservatives to attack men promoting women’s rights. In December, conservatives alleged that Saudi men were contributing to the corruption of women and behaving “shamefully” by socializing with them during session breaks at the Saudi Intellectual Forum in Riyadh. Sabah says that attacking the moral character of a Saudi can be devastating, and serves as an effective tool to silence allies of women’s rights activists.

“I can face this kind of thing. It’s my country,” Sabah says. “But do I want my daughters to grow up in this environment? There’s the old joke that Saudi Arabia takes one step forward for progress and two steps backward. Well, it’s many steps backward now. We’re regressing.”

A 28-year-old doctoral student studying at the University of Birmingham in England, who asked to be called Khadija, says she is hopeful for women’s rights. She points to the fact that women won the right to vote and run for elected office. The university scholarship program is evidence of the government’s desire to provide better educational and employment opportunities for women. A progressive administrator, Sheikh Abdullatif Aal Al-Sheikh, was recently appointed to run the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. His first promise was to disband the volunteer vigilante force that strikes fear in many Saudis.

Yet the progress has had little effect on the day-to-day lives of Saudi women.

“We as Saudi women are getting impatient,” Khadija told The Media Line. “I want to be there for my country. They are giving me an education. But there are too many forces against me. Too many people want me to stay at home and waste my education, waste my brain. If I have to stay in the West to use my brain, I will.”

Yet Khadija says the reality is that the decision to remain in the West entails too high a price for most Saudi women. “I am looking for a job here in England and I’m hoping to find a way to stay here and live without restrictions. But am I ready to lose my family over it? No, not really.”

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

January 16, 2012

Saudi Women Target Guardianship Laws to Ease Employment Restrictions

By Rob L. Wagner

Eurasia Review

16 January 2012

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – When Shroog Talal Radain sought employment as a teacher’s assistant at King Abdulaziz University, her husband signed the necessary guardianship forms granting her permission to take the job.

It’s the law of the land. A woman must carry around a permission slip from a man to function in Saudi society.

“To me getting permission wasn’t a big deal because it felt like a piece of paper and that’s all,” Radain said in a recent interview. “But unfortunately to others it’s a big deal, especially to those who do not have a close guardianship like a father, brother, husband or son.”

As violent protests roil through the Middle East with ruling monarchies facing uncompromising demands from its citizens for a greater voice, women’s rights is emerging as Saudi Arabia’s own Arab Spring, albeit in a less demonstrative manner. Emboldened by the role women played in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, Saudi women are beginning to challenge the core of the kingdom’s interpretation of guardianship in Islam. A male family member supervising all aspects of a woman’s life is a belief among Saudis who view guardianship as a sacred duty.

It is also perhaps the most abused tenet of Islam. The Qur’an is clear on the issue of employment of women: Islam permits women to work with some conditions. Women can work as long as the job does not interfere with being a wife and mother. The job should also not force women to mix with men. Women should also have special skills, such as in teaching or medicine. Islamic scholars generally agree that women seeking employment do not need a guardian’s permission. Nor does a government have the authority to demand that a woman receive such permission.

Last fall, a group of Saudi women launched a campaign to abolish the Ministry of Labor’s rule that women must have guardian approval to seek employment. Alia Banaja, a spokeswoman for the group, told the Saudi media recently that the Saudi constitution affirms women’s equality by stating in gender-neutral language that, “Equality, justice and consent are the basis for ruling.”

“For women to have the chance to work in the profession of her choice, obstacles must be eliminated out of her way,” Banaja told the English language newspaper Arab News.

By challenging the Ministry of Labor’s guardianship rules, the group is doing what was unthinkable just a few years ago.

“It has nothing to do with Islamic concepts simply because our society is tied up where they throw every issue on Islam,” Radain said. “Guardianship in Islam [refers to] a person who protects the woman, and seeks shelter, love and protection for her. It’s not a person who is in control of her and her life actions.”

Writer Tara Umm Omar, who blogs about Islamic and women’s issues in Saudi Arabia, told me that blanket guardianship rules are not practical given the varying dynamics of Saudi families. Guardians are often too busy to help with paperwork or they use the right as a weapon. “Some of these male family members abuse the guardianship law out of spite and use it to their advantage, inconveniencing their female relatives as a result,” she said.

According to a survey conducted by the global consulting company Booz & Co., nearly half of the Saudi population is female and 56.5 percent of the kingdom’s women hold university degrees. However, just 14 percent of the women are in the workforce, In contrast, women account for 25 percent of the population in Qatar with 89 percent holding university degrees. Qatari women make up 30 percent of the country’s workforce.

The study notes the Gulf region’s “mix of local norms and traditions, social beliefs and principles emanating from the GCC’s patriarchal system still, to some extent, exert an influence on young women’s lives.” The study also found that only 22 percent of Gulf women believe they must devote their lives as wives and mothers before taking on a job. It marks a dramatic shift of Arab women’s attitudes from how their parents view their roles in society.

Yet Saudi women walk a tightrope between demanding their rights within the context of Islam while at the same time being perceived as challenging those very precepts as defined by the government.

US-based Muslim women’s rights activist Raquel Evita Saraswati, a frequent lecturer on religious and human rights issues, said that petitioning religious authorities might be seen as aggressive by Saudi authorities.

“But it really isn’t all that aggressive or extreme in the context of Islam itself as a religion with a rich history of debate and dissent among the faithful,” Saraswati said in an interview. “However, Saudi Arabia has implemented a specific interpretation of Islam as state law, effectively banning any other interpretation of the Sharia (Islamic law).”

Mark Sedgwick, coordinator of the Arab and Islamic Studies Unit at Aarhus University in Denmark and a historian of modern Islam, said it makes sense that Saudi women want rights grounded in Islam. It does not make sense, he said, when it is incorrectly implemented.

“So many of the practical problems for women in Saudi Arabia derive from the way in which the concept of guardianship is interpreted there — ways in which it is not interpreted almost anywhere else in the Muslim world — that it makes a lot of sense to start with those interpretations,” Sedgwick said.

Saraswati said the guardian rules are simply a mechanism to control women.

“I do not argue that the Qur’an grants the sexes complete equality,” Saraswati said. “However, I find Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on women in the workplace to be a conscious, calculated interpretation on the part of religious authorities, rather than absolute mandates set down by the religion.”

Saraswati said the Labor Ministry’s guardianship rules are so egregious that it renders Saudi women to the status of a child. “Islamists have burned embassies and murdered film directors over insults to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, while Muslim women live under rules more insulting to Prophet Muhammad than any cartoon could ever be,” she noted.

If push comes to shove, few Saudis will argue the religious validity of the kingdom’s guardianship rules. Umm Omar, however, said Saudi woman must shoulder some of the responsibility for their predicament.

“There has to be a line drawn as to how much a government and employers can interfere in peoples’ lives,” she said. “That goes for those Saudi women who think they know that what is best for them is also best for others. Sometimes I think that these types of women are their own enemies.”

Still, working women and young university students seeking employment are aware that abolishing the Labor Ministry’s requirements will only poke a stick in a hornet’s nest.

“If the Ministry of Labor had to loosen up the guardianship issue, then other ministries will have to loosen up as well, which will start a whole new dilemma,” said university teaching assistant Radain. “But for them to abolish it completely, believe me it will never happen.”

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.”

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.

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