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Activist Shrugs Off 'Cosmetic' Improvements In Saudi Women's Rights

Women cheer and wave national flags in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (file photo)
Saudi activist and writer Wajeeha al-Huwayder describes the state of women's rights in Saudi Arabia today. Interviewed conducted by Radio Free Iraq correspondent Karam Mnashe; translated by Ayad Al-Gailani.

RFI: What is the role and position of Saudi women today?

Wajeeha al-Huwayder: If you are talking about the situation of women, then nothing much has changed. Women are still experiencing the same problems they have been facing for 50 years, or more. They are still facing restrictions on their movements, in making their own personal decisions, in developing their own personalities through studying or getting married. All of these things are monopolized by men; it is they who make the decisions for the women. Today -- even after more than 70 years since the establishment of the Saudi state -- Saudi women are still living outside the scope of history. They are held in contempt; their rights are forfeited; and there are no indications of any improvement in their situation in the near future.

RFI: Despite all the talk and efforts with regard to the development of this condition, has nothing been achieved in recent years?

Al-Huwayder: I am talking about a real achievement that would affect the majority of Saudi women. There have been what I consider cosmetic steps that touch upon the external [apparent] condition of women, whereas women are still burdened by the "mahram" law, for example. This [law] deprives them of all their human rights, in that women are still being treated as being the property of men, and men can rule women in any way they wish.

But if we were to talk about what has happened during the reign of King Abdullah, there have been some developments. Women have begun to appear in the media, a woman was appointed to a ministerial post about a year ago, and there has been an attempt to have women playing a role in the business field -- although this is still very limited. In education, there have been some breakthroughs in some fields. Prior to the accession of King Abdullah, women were not allowed to study law; but now this is permitted, as is the case with media studies.

But I'm talking about ordinary women, like myself, who need to commute between their homes and their place of work. Women who suffer at the hands of their husbands. Women who need to access the courts but who are not allowed to do so without a "mahram." Women who need to acquire a passport or to look for work. All of these affairs are still in the hands of men; they are the ones who decide when, where, and what she must do.

RFI: If we could turn to Wajeeha al-Huwayder, the writer. We would like to discuss the latest developments in Saudi Arabia, particularly with regard to the deployment of Saudi and Gulf troops to Bahrain.

Al-Huwayder: We must not forget that this is happening within the framework of "Gulf Cooperation," which is first and foremost cooperation on security. These are terms that have been approved by the Gulf States, covering any instance of a Gulf state being subjected to any threat, invasion, or attack, at which time the other Gulf States would send their troops to provide support. It is like what happened in Kuwait, even though in that case there was intervention by external forces. At the state level, it is a matter of agreements. But at the popular level, it is something that brings pain.

There are people who feel oppressed and who are demanding their rights. That does not constitute an external attack, nor is it a natural disaster that requires their support. I view this matter as being an internal affair that needs to be contained within Bahrain's borders, with the Bahrain state listening to the people's legitimate demands. When the matter grows and escalates to the point where troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries intervene, that means that they have canceled out their internal situation; they have canceled their situation as a sovereign state, and now a bigger and stronger state comes in to run their internal affairs. I personally consider the matter as interference in Bahrain's internal affairs; Bahrain itself needs to solve these problems that concern the Bahrainis above all others. No Gulf State has the right to interfere in this matter.

RFI: Our final question: We in Iraq have -- as you have described them -- people demanding their rights, as is the case in Saudi Arabia. Could we ask you for an explanation, with regard to people demanding their rights in Saudi Arabia?

Al-Huwayder: Saudi Arabia, like all the Arab countries, has failed to embrace its minorities and to make them feel that they are citizens who have all their rights and obligations. As in any Arab country, their minorities are discriminated against. There are many objections to what is going on, but it is an issue that has been accumulating for decades.

In some of the Shi'ite areas -- in Saudi Arabia we have the Ishmaelites in the south and the Shi'ites in the eastern region -- there are some demonstrations calling for their rights. But they are simple demonstrations that have not targeted the regime as an institution. Rather, they are calling for the release of some prisoners -- some of whom have been imprisoned for up to 15 years -- who have not been tried. They want to know what has happened with regard to these imprisoned men. Some people have come out to demand better employment opportunities because their chances are fewer than those of others. In other words, the issues are quite simple.

None of the demonstrators in the eastern region have challenged the regime as such, nor have they raised their voices against the state. They have, rather, demanded a legitimate right. What has happened? The same as what happens in any autocratic state: they were faced by riot forces who suppressed them. Some were imprisoned, others were hurt. But this will continue until they hear someone responding to them. These are fathers, sons, and brothers who have families; their families want to know what will happen to them.

I think that the Arab countries always wait until the situation reaches the point of explosion, and even then they do not respond wisely or rationally. Thus the results are tragic, such as the tragic events in Libya, and even in Egypt, where there have been casualties, and also in Tunisia. Why do we wait -- all of the Arab countries, all 22 of them, and all of whom practice oppression, curbing personal freedoms, freedom of expression? There are many violations [in these countries], and there is a lot of administrative and financial corruption. Why do they wait until matters reach this stage that we are witnessing today, and in the end they deal with events with even more suppression?


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