For the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, Saudi women are being allowed by their ultra-conservative government to compete. As the Saudi athletes marched in the opening ceremonies in London, the women’s faces and open arms showed a joyful sense of emancipation from the yoke of political, religious, and traditional marginalization. By the standards of free and advanced societies, the advance is small, but by Saudi standards, it is a gigantic step forward, with far-reaching implications for Saudi Arabia and the international community.
Saudi women’s evolving willingness to assert their rights has been a game-changing development of recent years. Known for their resilience and ability to cope with institutional repression, Saudi women are saying enough is enough. Rising levels of education and access to communication tools like the Internet have made them better informed than ever before. They are organizing and unabashedly pursuing their rights despite the attendant risks of harassment by the morals police, arrest, and interrogation. A few have been briefly imprisoned.
Women’s right to drive cars and to be treated equally in employment are among the most hotly contested issues in Saudi Arabia today. Women are also pressing for improved educational facilities, a modern curriculum that respects the contributions of women, and the removal of the male guardian system, which requires them to have the accompaniment or written approval of a male relative for travel, schooling, employment, and some medical treatment. One recent success is the requirement that department stores selling lingerie replace salesmen with female sales staff, an advance in respect for women and a new source of jobs.
Yet resistance to change remains fierce. In September 2009, for instance, King Abdullah announced that, after consultation with senior clerics, he was allowing, women to vote in municipal elections and become eligible for appointment to the national Shura Council in 2015. This symbolic step—the elections are largely cosmetic and the Shura Council lacks substantive power—deeply divided the country’s political and religious authorities. One senior cleric, Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, in a rare public display of dissent, accused the king of lying: He denied the clerics had been consulted.
The House of Saud and the tightly controlled religious institutions it represents remain at odds over to how to deal with women in the 21st century, with the religious establishment adamantly opposed to change. In an attempt to maintain support among their indoctrinated followers, Saudi religious institutions continue to use arcane religious textbooks to advance the notion that women are inferior to men.
Yet all indications point to the ultimate triumph of modernity over Saudi men’s gender paranoia, as women steadily gain strength, support, and recognition, at home and abroad. Their success seems to be the only hope for positive change in Saudi Arabia, and it will benefit the international community as well, by undermining the religious establishment and the lethal doctrines it propagates around the world. Inexplicably, the international community—notably Western democracies that have been targeted by Muslim extremist and terrorist groups—takes little notice of Saudi women’s struggle. Strong Western support for Saudi women—like those spirited athletes in London—is another development that is long overdue.
Ali H. Alyami is executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia.