Abeer Mishkhas

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (WOMENSENEWS)–This month the government here holds a national conference on domestic policies affecting women.

The exact date of the official conference, the third National Dialogue, a series of meetings launched by Crown Prince Abdullah in a bid to stimulate reform in the Kingdom, has yet to be announced. But ever since January, when the government announced the conference,newspapers have been warming up for the event bygiving unprecedented coverage to the clash of conservative and liberal views over whether women should play a larger role in society and politics.

In the process, issues from which editors usually avert their eyes–whether women should vote, work where they please, drive and play sports–have finally been laid out in newspaper pages. Many of us here have been overjoyed to see a long-closeted debate go public. Women in Saudi Arabia need an honest and open discussion of their long-neglected issues.

Freedom to Work, Travel, Play and Drive

Though no official statistics are available on the changes women would like from this conference, a reading of the press here indicates that a large sector of educated women are anxious to choose the type of work they pursue, to travel inside and outside the country without a male’s permission, to play sports and to drive.

As Saudi Arabia prepares for this conference, it should look at what it has to gain from women’s greater participation in the economy and society. A recently published World Bank report noted that unreconstructed attitudes toward women had limited growth in the Middle East. “No country can raise the standard of living and improve the well-being of its people without the participation of half of its population,” the report said.

In an editorial on the conference, the English language daily Arab News echoed this idea, writing that “the quest for a greater role for women in society embraces far more than politics” and went on to discuss the social and economic roles that women can serve in their country.

Debate Began With Municipal Election News

The current debate on women began last October when the Saudi
government–which had previously never held elections–announced its intention to hold municipal elections within a year. It was the latest in a series of reformist developments last year in Saudi Arabia. Earlier in 2003, leading journalists, thinkers and public figures–including 50 women out of 300–signed a petition asking the government for more reforms in the Kingdom and more rights for women.

Though the government did not make it clear whether women would be able to vote or run for office, many women were nonetheless euphoric and dreamed of becoming voters and elected officials. The war of words between those who think that women are not suitable for such a political role and those who think we are has filled the newspapers ever since.

The traditional view that has always dominated public debate in Saudi Arabia is that a woman’s only role in life is to be a good housewife and a mother. But recently the cracks in that view have been growing.

Women’s Voices Rising

Some of the these voices from women’s circles have been mild, expressing a tactful aversion to radical change in social customs here. But others have been throatier. In an article published in a local daily paper, Dr. Aisha Mutawally insisted that women deserved a role in municipal elections.

“This decision will have a positive impact on citizens in the coming years,” she wrote. “We expect that women will have their voices heard in these elections and will actively participate in them as they make up more than half of society and their role is fundamental.”

In an article in Al-Watan, a popular daily newspaper, female columnist Muram Abdul Rahman demanded an end to the sidelining of women from the reform process and an inclusion in the municipal elections process.

“The natural thing is to see news about elections being received with joy by every one,” she wrote. “For women like me, however, there was no such joy. We were told we would neither be part of the team that was going to contest the match nor among the fans in the stadium. Matches held in my country have only men as players, referees and fans.”

She went on to ask the question that many of us here are asking with a growing sense of frustration: “Are we being punished for being women?”

Abeer Mishkhas is a Saudi Arabian journalist and an editor for the Arab News newspaper in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

For more information:

Women of Arabia:

Arab Women Connect:

Women’s eNews–
“A Question That Drives Saudi Women Crazy”: