It’s been about a year since the Women2Drive campaign was launched with Manal al-Sharif getting behind the wheel of a car and driving in the streets of Khobar in eastern Saudi Arabia.
A couple of weeks ago, she was honored as one of the awardees of the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Here is the video of her talk in Oslo:
Although relatively short at only about 15 minutes, I found her speech to be very compelling and providing real insight into the foundations for what is going on now in Saudi society. (And I’ll never listen to the Backstreet Boys in the same way again!) Also not to be overlooked is the fact that here is a Saudi woman not only showing her face, but having it broadcast all over the Internet. She is trailblazing a path for Saudi women in more ways than one.
I also found it interesting that to-date, there have been so many ‘dislikes’ vs. ‘likes’ on the YouTube page of her video. Obviously it seems that there are yet to be many battles to be waged on many fronts here.
We took a road trip to Doha last week for a short holiday. Doha is the capital of Qatar, which is a small Gulf state whose only land border is with Saudi Arabia. It has a population of 1.8 million, of which only 300,000 are Qatari citizens. Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar is also a petroleum-rich state and is ruled by a monarchy. Qatar and Saudi Arabia also follow the same version of Islam (Wahhabism). In addition, many Qataris are actually descendents from tribes originating from regions in Saudi Arabia, including the Najd region (central Saudi). For example, the Tamim tribe, to which Camelman belongs, gave rise to the Al-Thani family, which rules Qatar.
Same tribal roots, same religion, both petroleum-rich, both ruled by a monarchy .. but Qatar is no Saudi Arabia. The contrast between Qatar and Saudi Arabia was apparent as soon as we crossed the border. For example, when we passed the road sign saying “Welcome to the State of Qatar”, the car ride suddenly got much smoother as the pavement evened out. Even when we arrived at the actual border crossing, we were all a bit tongue-tied at first – because we were greeted by a female Qatari border guard! It might sound strange that this was noteworthy to us, but contrast it to Saudi Arabia where you would never encounter Saudi women working in situations where they need to interact with the general public. But pictures might be the most telling of all – here is the Qatar side of the border crossing:
And here is the Saudi side of the border:
Beyond just the border crossing, Qatar has significant differences from Saudi Arabia in several ways, both politically and socially. Qatar is a constitutional monarchy with a 45-seat parliament (currently appointed but will have two-thirds elected seats by 2013). Qatar is also playing a leading supporting role for the Arab Spring. Qatar has a free and open media – indeed, Al-Jazeera is broadcast from Qatar. Qatar allows for non-Muslims to practice their religion. For example, there are already two Catholic churches and soon a third one for Maronite Christians will open. Men and women can mix freely in society, like in the West. Qatari women are not required to wear an abaya or cover their face in Qatar. They can if they want to, but they don’t have to. Indeed, there is no dress code for any women (Qatari or expats). Also, women can drive in Qatar and they can hold jobs where they might have to deal with the public. In fact, the president of Qatar University (which is co-ed) is a woman.
So it IS possible to have a free, open, and progressive society in the Arabian peninsula!
Posted in society
Tagged Al Jazeera, Arabian Gulf, church in Qatar, Doha, equality, hijab, human rights, niqab, Persian Gulf, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, women's rights
Yesterday, there were news reports here of several female university students injured following a protest at King Khalid University in the city of Abha, located in western Saudi Arabia. There were apparently around a 1000 students who gathered to protest against corruption and deplorable learning conditions at the university, including garbage allowed to accumulate around the cafeteria and insufficient seating in lecture halls despite repeated complaints from students. At least 50 students were injured and several had to be sent to hospital. Some reports stated that a student died following an epileptic seizure and another suffered a miscarriage, but not all the coverage reported the death, so that fact is uncertain.
This university protest is just the latest among a few that have occurred over the last year – all but one, to my knowledge , by female university students. I should also point out that any sort of public demonstrations are banned in Saudi Arabia, making these university protestors even that much braver. Last year, there were protests by female students at Princess Nora University when apparently 70% of the class failed the English exam. You can be pretty sure that when a majority of the students fail an exam, there’s something wrong with the exam … and the instructor! And also last year, female university students at Umm Al Qura University in Mecca stormed the university’s administration building protesting the institution’s admissions policy that unfairly considered family and personal connections (“wasta”) over actual merit and academic grades.
Change and revolution is often seeded by the youth, as seen by so many examples throughout history. For Saudi Arabia, will it be the women who will lead the charge?
Well it wasn’t exactly the scores of sister suffragettes parading through the streets (à la Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins), but a major step forward towards women’s equality was announced today. King Abdullah has declared that women can vote in the next round of municipal elections and can even run as candidates to sit on the municipal boards. Further, he proclaimed that he will appoint some women to serve on the Shoura advisory council. The last major announcement that boosted public participation for women was two years ago, when King Abdullah appointed a woman to be the deputy minister of education.
You have to realize, though, that Saudi Arabia only had its first elections in 2005. These were for seats on the municipal councils and only males over the age of 21 were allowed to vote. Only half of the seats on these councils were up for grabs too (the other half were appointed by the government). Voter turn-out then was just 30%, so it’s not like the men were clamoring to participate in these elections either.
The next round of municipal elections were supposed to be held in 2009, but were ostensibly postponed to “study the previous election” and consider the issue of allowing women to participate. It was evidently considered v-e-r-y carefully as now, two years later, this announcement comes out. The timing of this announcement is very interesting too. The new date for these delayed elections is this Thursday – too late for the women to participate this time around. They’ll have to wait another 4 years to participate (assuming they keep to their schedule).
Now don’t get me wrong – I do think that this is a significant step forward for Saudi Arabia. But I also think that this is a ‘low-hanging fruit’ for the government to grab onto, riding on the back of the increasing presence of women in the media. Given the pervasiveness of internet and satellite TV across Saudi Arabia, Saudi women (especially the younger generation) have already been expressing their opinions and voices – through social media, commentaries, blogs (e.g. saudiwoman’s weblog or a saudi woman’s voice). Marching over to the local electoral station (I wouldn’t be surprised to see separate ‘bachelor’ and ‘family’ sections anyway) to stand in an enclosed ballot booth to cast your vote is a no-brainer in terms of implementing the election. (It’s not like the election will increase the opportunity for men and women to mingle, heaven forbid.) The significance is that now Saudi society will encounter the voice of millions of Saudi women (assuming they all vote) … on municipal issues.
It’s a start.