In Saudi Arabia, Women’s Voices Are Starting to Be Heard

By royal decree, women now make up 20% of the closest thing the conservative Islamic country has to a legislature. In 2015, they will get to vote and run for office. However, they still can't drive

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Lynsey Addario / VII for TIME

Saudi TV anchor Fouz Auwadh al-Khmali, center, talks with colleagues after shooting a live segment at the Ministry of Information in Riyadh on Feb. 25, 2013

Updated: April 1, 2013

Saudi Arabian television news anchors aren’t supposed to smile too broadly. After all, the news is serious business in this country. But when presenter Fouz Auwadh al-Khmali delivered the morning news for the state-run Al Akbaria channel on Jan. 11, she couldn’t stop grinning. On that day, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah announced that for the first time the names of the women he would appoint to the country’s consultative Shura Council, the closest thing the country has to a parliament. On air, al-Khmali read the names of the 30 women who would make history in the historically male-dominated kingdom. From that day forward a full 20% of the Shura would be represented by women. Little more than a month later, al-Khmali announced that the women had been sworn in, and would soon take their places at the country’s helm. “This is the beginning of a new era for Saudi women,” al-Khmali said backstage one recent morning as she prepared to go on air. “It’s about time women have a say — we are 50% of Saudi society, you know.”

From the outside, progress on women’s rights in the kingdom may appear to be mired in tar. After all, women are still not allowed to drive, they can’t get a job or take a loan without the permission of a male family member, and their designated male guardians, usually a husband or a father, are notified via SMS every time they leave the kingdom. But from the perspective of women inside the country, dizzying changes are afoot. For the first time, female athletes represented Saudi Arabia at the Olympics last year in London. An employment ban has been lifted for female cashiers at supermarkets, and women have taken the place of men in lingerie and cosmetic stores across the country. And in Riyadh on March 26, Cabinet ministers issued a new law making national identification cards mandatory for all women, granting them identities independent from their families and paving the way toward lifting the onerous guardianship system that treats every woman, regardless of her age, as a minor. That would be a crowning achievement for King Abdullah, who has done more for women in his eight-year reign than any monarch since his brother, King Faisal, allowed girls to go to school in 1964.

UPDATE In a sign of how far things have yet to go, on March 31, Saudi newspaper al Watan reported, according to Reuters, that the government would license women’s sports clubs, opening the way for women’s gyms and fitness facilities, which until now have been designated “health centers” and regulated by the Health Ministry. What the government gives, however, it can also take away: last week the leadership threatened to ban Skype, WhatsApp and Viber unless those service providers give them means for monitoring conversations on the popular text and internet calling platforms.

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“Abdullah has a strong desire to see women advance in Saudi,” says Fawzia al-Bakr, a women’s rights activist and professor at King Saud University. “He wants them to work, he has given them scholarships [to Western universities], and now, with the Shura, he is tackling the most difficult issue in our society today: segregation. If you can get rid of segregation, then most of our problems will be solved.” But at age 88, King Abdullah doesn’t have much time. If he pushes for reforms too quickly, the country’s conservative majority may rebel. Too slowly, and he may not live long enough to ensure they take root. Appointing women to the Shura Council may be the best way to cement the progress he has been able to achieve so far.

Many skeptics have dismissed the move as symbolic. The council, which is largely composed of academics and bureaucrats, has no legislative teeth. But in Saudi Arabia, symbols are enough to set change in motion. When King Abdullah first floated the idea of women on the council nearly two years ago, he suggested they would serve in a separate room, linked to the main body via video feed — a nod to conservatives who abjure gender mixing. When the new appointees took their seats, however, they did so in the very same hall as the men — a radical departure for a government that officially promotes segregation of the sexes. The Shura Council sessions are often televised, so having women in the hall is sure to make a big impact, says Al Akbaria’s head of programming, Rawda al-Jazani. “Just the visuals of seeing women sitting in the Shura, with their faces uncovered, making equal decisions with men, that alone will make women in authority more acceptable to society.”

It also sets the stage for 2015, when, per a recent decree by the King, women will not only be able to vote in municipal elections for the first time, they will also be able to run. And, if the Saudi leadership ever allows the Shura Council to be democratically elected, as many Saudi citizens fervently hope, having women already in place sets a good precedent. “Everyone agrees we need a consultative body elected by the people,” says blogger Eman al-Nafjan. “So to have women on the Shura now means we don’t have to question whether women should have a role later when it does become elected.”

Signs of progress aside, it’s not clear how much of an impact the female members of the Shura will have on women’s lives in Saudi today. On March 18, some 3,000 citizens signed a petition asking Shura members to bring up the women-driving issue for debate. While individual members have suggested they are in favor, so far it has not been tabled for discussion. Many Saudi activists believe King Abdullah intended to issue a decree allowing women to drive at the same time he announced that women’s appointment to the Shura Council, but pulled back at the last minute for fear of invoking an outcry from the conservative clerics who give the regime its religious legitimacy. As it is, the backlash against women in the Shura has been strong. Tweeting clerics have pronounced the new members “whores” and “filth” but the counterbacklash has been equally vociferous. “Every disease has a medicine to heal it except stupidity,” tweeted one supporter.

Al-Khmali, the news anchor, had a hard time hiding her emotions when she reported on the negative reactions. “I felt sad that people could say such things, that they felt comfortable targeting women,” she says. Still, she takes courage from her own experience as one of Saudi Arabia’s first female anchors. She too was bombarded with negative SMS messages and Facebook posts. Eventually the furor calmed, and now the station boasts several female presenters. “Always at the beginning of these things, there is a lot of hue and cry. But it will die down when people get bored.” Only in Saudi Arabia is boredom a sign of progress.

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