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Saudi Women Gain New Reforms

8:18 AM, Sep 19, 2013 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The Arab News disclosed, “In a 2009 study of women seeking services at primary health centers in Medina, 25.7 percent of the 689 women surveyed said they were victims of physical abuse. Only 36.7 percent of the abused women in the study notified their doctors.”

In other developments, by royal order in February 2013, 30 women were admitted to Saudi Arabia’s supreme consultative body, the unelected, 150-member, previously male-only Shura Council. Television news coverage of the Shura Council session by the liberal channel Al-Arabiya, which is Saudi-owned but based in Dubai, showed that most of the women members did not appear in face veils. In 2011, women were granted restricted electoral rights, including running for local councils, naming candidates, and voting, beginning in 2015.

While laudable, the new domestic violence legislation leaves numerous gaps in the status of Saudi women. Female Saudi citizens may still be limited in their rights before a court. They may face prosecution if raped, on the pretext that the female victim was in the company of someone to whom she was not related or married, or lacked the presence of a “guardian”/chaperone. Saudi women and girls must contend with so-called “honor” murders, forced marriage, forced divorce involving “forbidden” relations between certain families, clans, and tribes, and the repellent practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Even in the last context, however, Saudi Arabia has shown some progress. A paper by Sharifa A. Alsibiani and Abdulrahim Rouzi, two researchers in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the King Abdulaziz University in Jedda, has been published in English. Based on a study of 130 sexually-active Saudi women who underwent FGM and 130 who were sexually active but free of genital cutting, the paper concluded, “Sexual function in women with FGM is adversely altered.” It stated forthrightly that while FGM is considered a traditional obligation by some Muslims, “all scholars and Islamic authorities agree that all types of body mutilation including FGM are condemned by Islam.”

The desert monarchy has been notorious throughout the world for its restrictions on females, including requirements for full-body covering when outside a domestic environment, and a ban on women driving cars and trucks. At least 80,000 Saudi women own private vehicles, and it is well known that Saudi women operate them in rural areas, although on highways and in cities they must employ drivers.

Until last year, the so-called “religious police,” better titled “morals patrols,” and officially named the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), was charged with “monitoring” mixed-gender couples to make sure they were married or otherwise family-related. But Saudi King Abdullah then replaced the head of the commission, naming Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, who is active in reform efforts, to direct it. The new chief decreed that the patrols could no longer include volunteer zealots, and were barred from harassing people.

Most recently, the Saudis have entered a film feature as their first-ever competitor for the Oscars: Wadjda,from the country’s first female cinema director, the unveiled Haifaa Al-Mansour, depicts a 10-year old Saudi girl surrounded by retrograde attitudes and customs. While Egypt slides further into chaos, blood continues flowing in Syria, and Iran appears intransigent in its radicalism, the gradual but undeniable steps being taken towards normalization of Saudi society should not be ignored. 

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