Women rising in a rich man's world

As Saudi Arabia's king grants women key voting rights, Lubna Hussain gauges the mood on the streets of Riyadh
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The Arab Spring inspired and emboldened women across Saudi Arabia, but few dared hope that it would bring any swift and meaningful change to the deeply conservative Kingdom, where women need the approval of a male guardian for some of the most mundane tasks, and are still banned from driving cars.

An equal region: click here for full graphic (400k)

Then on Sunday, King Abdullah – seemingly defying the religious hardliners in his most controversial reform to date – made the surprise announcement that women will be granted the right to vote and stand as candidates in municipal elections. Perhaps more surprisingly, they will also be admitted into the Shura Council, the Kingdom's advisory body that has traditionally been the bastion of 150 male appointees.

While there were pockets of scepticism, there was excitement and optimism among many women in this Muslim nation.

"I believe that this is a very big deal for all women in Saudi Arabia," Hind Al Muhanna, a pharmacist and mother of two young girls, told me. "It's not just about the fact that we can vote or become Shura members, but it's about how we are finally being given the option to do so. If you ask my opinion, that's where the real progress has been made. I genuinely feel that under this King I'm on my way to becoming an equal citizen."

Her thoughts were echoed by Manal Faisal, a 17-year-old high-school student. "I think it's a very positive step in the right direction. I feel like my voice will be heard and I will be represented by women who understand me and have my best interests at heart," she said.

In spite of the 87-year-old monarch's commitment to a programme of reforms that brought the opening in 2009 of the Kingdom's first co-educational university, religious hardliners have consistently tried to undermine his efforts. Female students who have chosen to study abroad have been labelled as the "denizens of hell" in recent blogs that attempt to influence public opinion into sustaining a more orthodox style of Islam.

The vision of these hardliners is a Saudi Arabia where men and women are prevented from mixing, and perhaps the biggest challenge King Abdullah faces is to forge ahead with progress whilst maintaining a delicate balance with these fundamentalist elements.

Fully veiled yet speaking in an American accent, Umm Ahmed represents the paradox that people outside of Saudi Arabia find hard to understand. She is one of a growing number of Saudi women who have been educated in the West, but prefer to adhere to their own traditional ideals.

"Most people in the world view us as being oppressed and can't accept the fact that we have no interest in aping our Western counterparts," she said. "I'm happy that the King has taken such a courageous step forward. However, it's very crucial that people realise that this isn't because of external pressure. My fear is that in the name of so-called 'progress' we might lose out on our religion and who we are and what we want to be."

From a Western perspective, it is easy to denounce the latest announcements as being too little too late. But in a desert land that has never seen the equal representation of women at any level of governance, and where more than half of all graduates are female and yet only represent about 10 per cent of the workforce, this is a hugely significant advance. Some see it as the beginning of a series of laws that will see women eventually achieving equal rights.

A campaign led by Manal Al Sharif that incited Saudi women to drive cars in open and potentially dangerous defiance elicited some response on 17 June, but what was perhaps more surprising than women driving was the fact that the authorities did not mete out the heavy punishments many anticipated. This gave out a strong message that has been reinforced by the King's most recent attempt to empower women.

Reem Q, a dental student from the coastal city of Jeddah, recently flouted the unwritten law and took to the streets with her brother in the passenger seat. "Where else in the world would you allow women to stand for election, vote, make them members of the Shura Council, but not allow them to get to those places on their own?" she asked. "I think this is like a bit of a test balloon and once the government sees what kind of a reaction it gets from this announcement and if there's not too much backlash, then women will be allowed to drive. In general, I think we are pretty happy with our leaders and even though people in the West may think we are backward, we are not as far behind as they think."

But in a sign that change does not come overnight, a lawyer said yesterday that authorities were planning on bringing a Saudi activist to trial for defying the driving ban. Waleed Aboul Khair, the attorney, said that Najalaa Harrir was summoned for questioning by the prosecutor general in the port city of Jeddah on Sunday, the same day King Abdullah made his surprise announcement.