Equal Rights: Another Small Step For Saudi Women

By Dima Abumaria | The Media Line

January 8, 2018

Photo: Getty Images

Analysts believe that Riyadh is serious about granting females basic freedoms

Saudi Arabia’s Bureau of Public Prosecution intends to employ female investigators and administrative staff at its headquarters and various branches throughout the Kingdom. The initiative is geared towards enhancing the privacy of Saudi women during probes, which is part of a broader effort to increase women’s rights in the country.

Khaled Batrefe, a Professor of Psychology at al-Faysal University, explained to The Media Line that the development must be viewed as the latest in a series of actions that has gradually prepared the ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim nation for the integration of females into society. “Granting Saudi women the right to an education, to travel [without a male companion] and to drive all led up to this step,” he contended.

Moreover, Batrefe noted, whereas the House of Saud previously recruited women from abroad to fill “female positions” in fields such as gynecology, “now there are a lot of Saudis filling these roles themselves.” He nevertheless stressed that the bid to empower women will likely run up against opposition from radicals who practice the Wahhabism doctrine.

“Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has cracked down on these people,” Batrefe added, “but this came forty years too late.”

Despite a history of promoting repressive restrictions on women, Riyadh has publicly committed to increasing the rate of female employment from 22% to 30% by reforming both the economy and legal system. Batrefe told to The Media Line that Saudis, in general, are ready for this kind of change, “with a good number of people [having] traveled and studied abroad, not only men but also women.” This has exposed many Saudis to more liberal cultures, which, in turn, is beginning to find expression in their own society. “They left and then came back with great values,” he continued, “and today we can witness women leading businesses, participating in the Consultative Council and having a big role in science and trade.”

Saudi Arabia, which has a population of roughly 31 million, is a vital member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Around half of its Gross Domestic Product derives from the oil and gas sectors, which also account for roughly 85% of its export income.

Enter Vision 2030, a plan attributed primarily to Crown Prince bin Salman that aims to diversify the Saudi economy, making it less dependent on oil in particular . To this end, an integral component of the strategy includes exploiting another major resource, this one almost fully untapped: namely, women. Vision 2030 calls for Saudi women to work across a full spectrum of industries, whereas in the past they were limited to such sectors as education.

Haya, a Saudi woman who spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity, urged all females in her country to quickly adapt to the changes while fully embracing competition against men. “I feel like we have an equal opportunity in some fields. I understand it’s not easy to change a society, nonetheless I believe this will happen slowly but surely,” she stated.

Shifa’a Abu Samra, a Communications Officer at the International Institute of Solidarity with Women, told The Media Line that Riyadh’s initiative marks a “quantum leap” in the state’s history, and “a very good one [at that].” She believes that granting women additional rights will reflect positively on the entire Arab world, while providing females therein with inspiration and motivation.

“Women must gain their basic rights to education and to work and it is shameful that the whole world looks at Saudi women as if they live on a different planet,” Abu Samra affirmed. She acknowledged that the process will not be completed overnight and that females may still face obstacles because of the current local culture. “Acceptance comes with time and we don’t expect to see a Saudi minister tomorrow, but there is hope,” Abu Samra concluded.

Saudi Arabia recently became the last country in the world to lift on a ban on female drivers, a move that will take effect later this year. Saudi women have also been granted the freedom to leave the house without a male guardian and, most recently, to attend football matches.

While there is a long way to go, many agree that even baby steps towards granting equal rights to Saudi women represents a positive shift in the Kingdom.

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