Old and new freedoms for Saudi Arabia

Suffrage represents an important step toward gender equality

On Sunday, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced the enfranchisement of women to vote, run for local office, and serve on the Shura Council — the king’s advisory board. Such sweeping reforms for women are groundbreaking for the ultraconservative country.

The king’s decision challenges the many religious leaders who often govern the social laws within Saudi Arabia. These religious leaders are mostly Wahhabi clerics, puritanical Sunni Islamists who were the original crafters of Saudi Arabia’s judicial and educational policies. They’re shaking their heads at King Abdullah’s recent reforms, since these clerics are advocates for women’s exclusion from the public sphere. They argue for institutional segregation of women from education and the permanency of women’s roles as housewives and mothers, and their influence has played a tremendous role in coloring the social setting that dominates Saudi Arabia today.

In fact, today, women make up only two percent of the workforce of Saudi Arabia. This rate has dropped over the years from seven percent in 1990 to four percent in 2003, due to Wahhabi influences. The clerics believe that only men belong in the public sphere, whereas women are to tend their homes. The religious leaders have set up laws to enfetter women to their households: women are not allowed to drive, and they are not allowed outside in public without a male acquaintance as an escort.

But over the years, this antiquated conservatism has met firm opposition from progressive monarchs. Their resistance slowly paved the way for the freedoms Saudi Arabian women have today. Indeed, the decision to bring women to the voting booths was only made possible by a prior initiative for women’s education.

To understand what led Saudi Arabia to become suddenly progressive today, we must look back to see how the precedents were first set.

In the 1940s, a brilliant young woman named Fatina Amin Shakir appealed to the Ministry of Higher Education to study abroad like her Saudi Arabian male peers. But her application was rejected. She appealed her case to King Faisal, a modernist for his time, and had her wish granted. Fatina became one of the first Saudi women to hold a PhD, from Purdue University.

But Fatina is only one of many women. The true push for women’s education came from King Faisal’s wife, Iffat Al-Thunayan. After introducing secular education to Saudi Arabian women, she went on to establish the first girls’ college in Riyadh in 1960 — Kulliyat ul-Banat.

Despite growing progressivism abroad, back at home King Faisal faced scrutiny from many religious scholars. Faisal explained that educating women helps make them good mothers, and that the Quran has never called for the barring of women from education, so he concluded that “God enjoins learning on every Muslim man and woman.”

But with the Saudi Arabian people backing the religious scholars, educating women remained widely unpopular and unorthodox. By 1981, the number of girls enrolled in schools grew to equal the number of boys. Yet the purpose of the girls’ education was to prepare them for their future roles as housewives and mothers, meaning that the education sector was mainly fixed by the religious scholars. This finally changed in 2002.

On Mar. 11, 2002, 15 girls died from a fire inside an elementary school because they were not allowed to exit the building without their head scarves. The religious police, or mutaween, stopped men from rescuing the girls, as it would have been sinful to approach them. The deaths sparked a public outcry. Public dissatisfaction with the role of the religious police and, more broadly, religious influence, surged. Since then, reform of the conservative education system has been total, and the religious overseers have been removed. Nowadays, in Saudi Arabia, nearly 60 percent of all students studying engineering, pharmacy, architecture, and law are women.

The fight for women’s education has been a truly arduous one within Saudi Arabia. It has marginally pushed the country to be more accepting of women acting in the public sphere. A continued push for progress is crucial now that Saudi Arabia has nominally welcomed women into politics. With education and politics as their tools, women can start to restructure their country.