By Anne Weis

In the area of women’s rights the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for all its wealth and trappings of modernity, is leaps and bounds behind most other nations. Saudi women lack many basic rights, and progress within the nation has been unbearably slow to come. However, recently members of Saudi’s royal family have appeared to be leading the nation down a new path of reform in terms of women. Saudi princess Ameerah al-Taweel appeared on CNN demanding increased freedom for Saudi women, and King Abdullah has granted his female subjects new rights in the last few years. Does this apparent desire for change on the part of the Saudi royal family point to a brighter future for the women of Saudi Arabia? Or is it only bound to lead to a showdown between the monarchy and the immensely powerful, hyper-conservative Muslim religious elite that currently dictates the role of Saudi Arabian women?

The rules that govern the lives of women in Saudi Arabia are largely defined by the doctrine of the Wahhabi sect of Islam, and are enforced by a community of conservative and powerful clerics. All women in Saudi are, for example, required to appear fully covered in public. The religious community, or ulama, has also banned Saudi women from driving, voting, and running for office. Perhaps the most restricting aspect of the lives of Saudi women is that they are universally subject to the “Saudi guardianship system” in which every woman and girl must gain permission from a male guardian to be able to travel, study, work, and partake in a host of other activities.[1] Thus, women in Saudi are effectively treated as minors, and have very little personal autonomy.

Recently, Princess Ameerah al-Taweel, the wife of Prince Alaweed Bin Talal, who is the nephew of King Abdullah, spoke publicly and forcefully about challenging the status of women in modern Saudi. Appearing on CNN, Princess Ameerah spoke particularly about the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia. This issue has been at the forefront of the debate over women’s rights in Saudi ever since May, when a woman named Manal al Sharif was arrested and imprisoned for driving.

However, according to Princess Ameerah, the right to drive is not the only, or the most important, issue on the table. She said, “There are priorities for us women here in Saudi other than driving. We care about laws for women, women in the workforce- basic rights.”[2] Princess Ameerah has vowed to continue to speak out and fight for greater equality for women within Saudi. A few days after her CNN interview she tweeted: “We want equal rights, we want what God has given us, the respect and the dignity to live as an equal citizen.”[3] While many consider the Princess a prospective leader of the burgeoning women’s movement in Saudi, others have criticized her for being a non-relatable figure for the common Saudi woman who will be unable to stir up popular support due to her privileged status.

Fortunately, the princess seems to share some ideological ground with her uncle-in-law, King Abdullah. In 2011 the king introduced a series of reforms that could potentially seriously advance the status of Saudi women. First, he promised women the right to vote and run for office in the 2015 municipal elections. He also guaranteed women the possibility of serving on the Shura council, or consultative assembly, which has until this point been made up of all men.[4] It appears that the king is serious about taking steps towards securing a greater degree of autonomy for his female subjects. However, it remains to be seen whether his progressive reforms will actually be carried out, or whether they will be thwarted in the eleventh hour by conservative Muslim clerics.

It is possible that a divergence of opinion on the question of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia could lead to increased tension between the royal family and the ulama. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that if this tension were to come to a head King Abdullah would continue to pursue his current reformist policies, fearing repercussions from the immensely powerful Muslim clerics. Thus perhaps the greatest hope for Saudi women lies with the women themselves, and progress if most likely to come from a popular movement among them.

[1] “World Report 2012: Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch. 2012.

[2] “Saudi women petition for right to drive.” Arabian Business. June 14, 2012.

[3] “Hope for Women: Saudi Princess Speaks Out.” The Daily Activist. 2012.

[4]  “World Report 2012: Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch. 2012.

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