I was disappointed, dismayed and depressed to say the least. Before the news came out, many women and men supported the stand taken by the two elected women to the Jeddah municipality council, Lama Alsulaiman and Rasha Hefzi, of their right to sit on the same table and in the same room with their male colleagues. The fact was that there were no regulations on the seating arrangement in the main bylaws of the councils. But now the Minister of Rural and Municipality Affairs has officially announced that “new” addendums to the regulations, made after the election results, state that women council members should be in a separate room following council proceedings and discussions and communicating with their colleagues through CCTV and microphones!
Voting for the first time on Dec. 12, 2015 was truly a historic day for Saudi women. We practiced our right to express ourselves after lobbying and demanding that for the past ten years since the first municipal elections were held. Even though not a significantly large number of women registered themselves to vote, for various reasons, 80% of those who did turned up to vote on a weekend as soon as the doors of the voting centers opened early in the morning. That is indicative of their determination.
The bigger surprise was the results. When all expectations predicted that no woman, or at the most one woman, would win, 21 women won across Saudi Arabia, in large cities and small villages. It showed that, contrary to what has been propagated that Saudi society is not ready to see women in public office and hold leadership positions in their community, it does actually supports and believes in women’s abilities and rights. Although many women expected the Ministry of Municipalities and Rural Affairs to appoint an equal number of women as men to the remaining third seats (numbering 1,052) in the municipalities, they were disappointed with the appointment of only 17 more women, bringing the total of women to 38 out of 3,158 council members in the 284 municipalities.
It seems that even this small number of women in the councils is threatening social norms and conservative cultural perceptions of women’s place that they had to be banished. How are they supposed to effectively communicate and participate in the decision making process if they do not have equal access and are marginalized?
Nevertheless, Saudi women have broken another glass ceiling, overcome another hurdle and achieved progress on a grand scale. This point cannot be stressed more. Some views considered this achievement as mere window-dressing. Western media was skeptical of the significance of this in a country where women still can’t drive a car and treated as a minor in need of a male guardian’s permission to work, travel or run her business, which is true to some extent and presents major obstacles to Saudi women’s full independence and contribution to society, but what must be realized is that any measure of power and expression for Saudi women will lead to more gains for women and the society as a whole. That was the hope and expectation.
This is just the beginning of the real work and challenges that the elected and appointed women in the municipality councils will face. Unfortunately, as with every step forward for women setbacks are made under the broad and undefined concept of “Shariah regulations” which apply only where women are concerned. Even though by majority Islamic scholars interpretations across the Muslim world, mixing of men and women in public places including at work is not against Shariah regulations. During the Prophet’s, PBUH, time and his successors, women attended public gatherings, voiced their opinion, objected and argued. They were known to have joined battles, treated the wounded and went about their daily work in markets and elsewhere unhindered.
In the Shoura Council, which is of a higher status then the municipal council, women and men share the same hall, and during committee meetings women are allowed the choice to either sit with their male colleagues or in a separate room. That should be the general rule for meetings. Valuable time and discussion should not be wasted on such trivial matters as “where should the women sit?”
Furthermore, whether it is driving, working, or traveling, it should be the woman’s choice as long as she is mature enough and sane to make her own decisions. If a woman is considered capable and responsible enough to marry, raise a child, get a university degree and work — as doctor with human life under her care, teacher with the country’s future in her hands, or banker entrusted with money — shouldn’t that qualify her to take care of her own life affairs, and by extension the life of her community. It is not a competition between men and women; it is complementary where both are equal partners in life and in serving their society.
The majority of the public who voted for the women and expressed their confidence in them as their representatives should be more vocal in supporting their candidates. Additionally, such incidents undermine whatever progress is achieved for women empowerment and does not give a good impression of Saudi Arabia and its diverse, tolerant and respectful society.
Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer