The Path to Gender Equality

American-based Sarah Attar was the first Saudi track athlete to compete in the Olympics, seen here at the London 2012 Olympic Games (Photo by  trcanje/flickr)   

American-based Sarah Attar was the first Saudi track athlete to compete in the Olympics, seen here at the London 2012 Olympic Games (Photo by  trcanje/flickr)

We recently wrote about the October 26 Women Driving Campaign in Saudi Arabia, a popular movement that appeared to be another sign of the expansion of women’s rights in the Kingdom. At first, only the hardliners protested the campaign with the kind of ridiculous explanation that gives fodder to Western stereotypes about Islam. Two Saudi comedians even mocked the driving ban with a music video (in English, with Arabic subtitles) that went viral, another apparent sign of support.

As the movement gained traction, men and women came forward arguing that permitting women to drive was an act of sedition, would lead to the downfall of the Saudi societal framework and to more violence for women, and even infidelity. As the day approached, the government pressured the group with legal threats to cancel any demonstration that would “disturb the public peace and [open] venues to sedition.” Groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International denounced the threats, and Western media outlets quoted the activists who vowed to continue the movement.

It’s important to remember that the government’s response and those of more traditional Saudi citizens are rooted in the historical, social, cultural and legal reality in Saudi Arabia. Spotlighting a single and highly specific issue does little to change attitudes in general. The right to drive (or the lack thereof) should not solely define the status of women in Saudi Arabia. Instead, there should be a shift in the focus. Change has to come from the pairing of both internal and international initiatives to take a more comprehensive approach to gender inequality in Saudi Arabia.

While Saudi Arabia is currently ranked the third worst country for women’s rights out of 22 Arab countries according to a recent Reuters survey, there are still some notable efforts within the Saudi women’s rights arena that merit attention.

Let’s begin at Saudi Arabia’s involvement at the international level.  In 1979, the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) sought to establish universal rights on to which countries could sign. By accepting the CEDAW, countries commit themselves to oversee a series of steps in effort to eradicate gender discrimination, including:

  • to incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women;

  • to establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination; and

  • to ensure elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations or enterprises.

Saudi Arabia signed onto the convention in 2000, but it would be impractical to think that the Kingdom would initially adopt CEDAW without objections. This is because CEDAW does not always address the cultural, societal, historical, religious, and political nuances in opinions regarding gender equality throughout the world.

Saudi Arabia first made reservations about CEDAW, claiming that some of the measures in the convention conflict with Shari’a law. However, in the last meeting in 2008, the Saudi delegation retracted its previous sentiments and  indicated that “there is no contradiction in substance between the Convention and Islamic Sharia.”

A pitfall of CEDAW is that there's no enforcement on implementation once a country has signed on. The CEDAW Committee has already called upon Saudi Arabia to “enact a comprehensive gender equality law and intensify its efforts to raise awareness about the Convention among the general public,” but little has been done on this front.

Despite the incongruities between domestic and international law and the obstacles to implementation, the Saudi approval of CEDAW is an important step. The fact that Saudi has signed on to an international human rights document shows that it is willing to adjust its attitude toward women within an international framework.

Beyond these pressures in the international arena, there are notable efforts and feasible opportunities to reform and increase women’s rights on the ground in Saudi Arabia.

Currently, there are more Saudi women in schools than Saudi men. Some 59,948 women received postsecondary degrees in 2009 compared with 55,842 men, according to the Education Ministry. In September 2009, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz  opened a science and technology post-graduate university open to both sexes, making it the “first co-educational public education institution in the country.”  Approximately 15% of the first incoming class were women. Opening up the university to women indicates that women have a right to higher education and should also have a place in science and technology industries.

Although many of these female graduates do not enter the workforce due to their own choice or because of familial or traditional objections, more Saudis now welcome the idea of women in the workplace.

In some offices, women are allowed to work alongside men--something that has traditionally been viewed as unacceptable. In other more conservative spaces, women have separate quarters in which to work.  

There are also 30 women on the Saudi government’s Shura Council. The Shura Council serves as the king’s policy and legislation advisory body. In January 2013, King Abdullah appointed them to the historically all-male council and instituted a 20% quota for women. This unprecedented move signaled an important shift in the government’s perspective on women. Women could and should have a say in directing Saudi Arabia’s policy at one of the highest echelons of authority.

The King has also made other important strides in advancing women’s rights in his country, albeit with much objection from conservative clergy. In September 2011, he announced that women would be allowed to cast ballots and run as candidates in municipal elections in 2015.

And while some women are satisfied with their current status in Saudi society, others desperately feel that more needs to be done to advance their rights.

The Brookings Institution authored a report for fostering synergies in effort to advance women’s rights in post-conflict Islamic states. While Saudi Arabia does not qualify as a post-conflict state, there are suggestions that could be applicable to advancing Saudi women’s rights.

By taking a “Three Pillars Approach,” the report recommends that political activists, legal advocates, and Muslim religious leaders find common ground and collaborate. All three of these groups are essential to comprehensive change in women’s rights.

First, political activists can draw upon international treaties like CEDAW that draw attention to “individual rights while reflecting universal, cross-cultural, and transitional sentiments about the rights of women.” They can emphasize the fact that Saudi has signed onto CEDAW to the other two groups that make up the three pillars.

Second, legal advocates can maneuver Saudi legislation and frame women’s rights in a way that fits in within the Saudi legal infrastructure. Legal advocates can propose new legislation and can aid activists in determining a political activists agenda that will make the most impact.

Finally, to say that religious leaders carry significant power within the Saudi government is a major understatement. They serve as theologians and provide checks on the Saudi monarchy. There is a great deal of ambiguity in religious law, especially in terms of how a government should be run and what powers it should hold. Working with religious leaders allows activists and legal advocates the opportunity to thoroughly examine what is actually written in religious law.

While the vast majority of religious leaders are men, there is a recent increase in the number of women in madrassas (though not necessarily in Saudi Arabia). The more women educated in Islamic law and tradition even out the playing field in dictating what is permitted and what is not as it relates to women’s right in the shari’a.

Emphasizing the importance of collaboration of these three groups could be the necessary step within the internal dialogue for advancing the status of women in Saudi Arabia.

And while Saudi Arabia is facing significant scrutiny for its new seat on the Human Rights Council, perhaps the appointment will serve as an incentive for the country to up its efforts in closing the gender inequality gap as it’s being closely monitored by the international community.