Thursday, February 26, 2009

Progress for Women in Saudi Arabia

While people in the United States are still marveling over the fact that we now have an African-American President, other major (and positive) changes are occurring in Saudi Arabia, including the appointment of the country's first woman minister. The AFP reports:

RIYADH (AFP) — Saudis on Sunday cheered King Abdullah's sweeping government shakeup as a bold step forward, a day after he sacked two powerful conservative religious figures and named the country's first-ever woman minister.

"Bold reform," Al-Hayat newspaper said in its headline, while the Saudi Gazette heralded the shakeup as a "boost for reform" in the Muslim kingdom.

"Everything is fantastic. This is what we have been fighting for," said Ibrahim Mugaiteeb, leader of the Human Rights First Society, who has done battle with successive governments over rights violations.

On Saturday, Abdullah announced the first major government shakeup since he became king in August 2005, naming four new ministers, changing a number of top judiciary chiefs and shaking up the Ulema Council, the leading clerics whose interpretations of Islamic rules underpin daily life in the kingdom.

The king also named 79 new members to the consultative Shura Council, Al-Hayat said.

In major changes that appeared to target the ultra-conservative clerics who have dominated the judiciary, he replaced Supreme Judicial Council head Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan, who Saudi activists say had blocked reforms for years.

And he replaced the head of the Muttawa religious police, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith, who had led an aggressive campaign in the media for a strict enforcement of Islamic mores, challenging other more liberal figures in the government.

"The Saudi government reshuffle announced yesterday is not just a changing of the guard," the Arab News said in its editorial. "It is a clear sign of a major transformation in the kingdom."

Few were ready to predict just what changes on the ground could come from the king's moves.

Battles over public morality and women in senior jobs have been brewing for years, and the challenges to the Islamic conservatives have grown in recent months.

Women's groups have demanded more rights and the breaking down of barriers that limit their career opportunities; the public has clamoured for movies to be shown in cinemas, banned for 30 years; and rights groups have accused Islamic judges of harsh and inconsistent judgements.

And last week Princess Amira al-Taweel, the wife of Saudi tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, complained publicly that while she can drive anywhere else in the world, she cannot take the wheel of a car in her own country, because women are banned from driving.

But the symbolism of the king's changes is bound to have an impact. The most symbolic was the naming of veteran educationalist Norah al-Fayez as deputy education minister for women -- the most senior job ever granted a woman in the Muslim kingdom.

"She is one of the leading ladies of the country," Mohammad al-Zulfa, outgoing member of the Shura Council, told AFP.

Even so, the move for women did not go as far as some expected. In January, Saudi media had reported that the new members of the Shura Council would include six women, who have not been represented on the council in the past.

But none were present on the new list, making it likely that no women will be included in the consultative body before 2013, the next time appointments are expected.

More fundamental were the changes to the country's religious leadership, who dominate thinking in education, justice and social life.

The removal of Luhaidan, who embarrassed the government last September when he said that the owners of satellite television channels airing "immoral" broadcasts should be killed, is believed likely to open more doors for reform.

The same is believed of Abudullah's shakeup of the Ulema council. He named a number of new members, and for the first time ever included representatives of all four Sunni schools of religious law.

Previously only the Hanbali school, the ultra-conservative one which dominates the Saudi version of Islam, was represented on the council.

Zulfa said the king's shakeup will bring "a new, different mentality" to government.

Key to making sure the changes stick will be the king's most powerful adjutants, who remain in place in jobs they have held for decades, analysts say.

These include his half-brothers Interior Minister Prince Nayef, Defence Minister Crown Prince Sultan and Riyadh Governor Prince Salman, as well as Foreign Minister Prince Saud.

This is really a big step forward in the right direction, in my opinion. I think that the process of trying to give Saudi women more rights is going to continue to be difficult. There are elements of their society that are resistant to change. I can relate to that situation. The fight for equal rights is still going on here in the United States. I can't wait to hear what Saudi women have to say about these reforms.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is great!
I just finished reading the "Princess" trilogy.
Thanks for the Information!