Move over, the Saudi suffragettes are here

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

It is a common adage. Every time a woman’s rights group in India questions existing patriarchal standards, often there is an immediate response: ‘at least, this isn’t Saudi’ or, ‘did you know that women in Saudi have it worse?’ Drawing such parallels is not surprising, given that much of our own feudal society is quick to look the other way every time someone name drops ‘gender’. The burden of this ‘other way’ often rests on the shoulders of Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia. Not that the reference is entirely off the mark given that the country still continues to believe that women must be protected by a male guardian. However, with the kingdom striding into its ‘suffragette’ moment, perhaps, a new day has come.

On 14 December 2015, when the women of Saudi Arabia, clad in their traditional attire Abayah, exercised their voting rights and elected women for municipal council elections for the first very time. It seemed that history had got a makeover. “This is not the first time in a way because women have been elected to the Chamber of Commerce and the Shura Council. But, yes, at the level of municipal council elections, this is a first,” says Khaled Al Maeena, former editor-in-chief, Saudi Gazette. “I was impressed with the turn out and it was a pleasant surprise seeing women conduct election campaigns enthusiastically through social media. Not only did they elect 17 women, in some places, the number of votes that women candidates secured was higher than their male counterparts.”

Unlike countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), who were influenced by the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia remained impervious to any change, be it social, religious, economic or political. It was during the time of the late King Fahd (1982 — 2005), also the nephew of the late King Abdullah (2005 — 2015), that the first drops of reform began trickling in. But since he had to maintain a balancing act between tradition and modernity, Fahd only focussed on the process of educating women and could not work towards overall progress. But under King Abdullah, the shift was tremendous. Touted to be the ‘reform king’, Abdullah captured the imagination of the Saudi youth, who were restless for many years under the stagnant regime. Gradually, small reforms were made with some of them resulting in the appointment of a woman minister.

“It was during the period of King Abdullah that around 30 women were elected in the Shura Council,” says Shabna Aziz, a freelance writer. “I have been living in Saudi Arabia since 1992. As an expatriate, I see this decision as a giant step and a clear indicator towards their changing attitude regarding women’s rights. This is the continuation of the process of gradual upliftment of women, considering the conservative nature of Saudi Society.”