Give Saudi Women their Rights”!


She is a single mother of two, a well known Saudi journalist, and a women activist. And she decided to celebrate the first anniversary of King Abdullah’s accession to power in an unconventional way: She went to the streets, holding a poster with one sentence written on it: Give Women their Rights!

Naturally Wajeha Al-Huwaider was arrested by Saudi security forces on Friday, 04th of August 2006, on Fahd Causeway – the Bridge that has linked Saudi Arabia to Bahrain since 1987.

“I was arrested after 20 minutes of walking on my feet; they (the security forces) confiscated my poster and my passport, and took me to an officer to write a report about the incident”. Al-Huwaider, who works as a Program and an evaluation analyst at Aramco, said in an e-mail.

She added “However, we could not start the proceedings because we had to wait for a member of the Religious Police. They told me that any case that involves a woman requires the presence of a member of the Religious Police”.

This “requirement” comes as no surprise. The very existence of the Religious Police in the Kingdom, called in Arabic as mutawwiin, or members of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, is perceived by observers as an obstacle to the advancement of Saudi women rights.

Originally established in the nineteenth century, the committee today numbers around 20,000 clerics who ensure that the public complies with the puritanical tenets of Wahhabism, the official religious sect of Saudi Arabia. Thus, among other duties, it enforces daily prayer time–when men must attend the mosque and shops must be closed. It also enforces the ban on alcohol consumption, punishes ‘immoral’ conduct, and makes sure women dress modestly in public. The last two “duties” made any woman (and any man) subject to public humiliation, if a member of the Religious Police deemed her behavior to be “lose” or “immoral”.

The discrimination against women is not only restricted to this aspect. In a Memorandum presented in 2003 to the government of Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch stated “women in the kingdom continue to suffer from severe discrimination in the workplace, homes, courts, and from restrictions on their freedom of movement. Women do not have the right to leave the house without a male relative or written permission from their guardian, which is also required to enroll in school or university, seek medical help, or open a bank account”.

This dire situation did not change much since the accession of King Abdullah to power in August 1st 2005. Al-Huwaider, who has been banned from writing in Saudi Newspapers since 2003, but was able to publish her articles in leading Arab online websites, such as Middle East Transparent and Elaph, wanted to remind the King of his own promise.

“The King has promised us that he will improve the situation of Saudi women. He asked us to have patience. A year has passed and our situations did not change much”. Al-Huwaider said.

This is due in part to the continuous influence of fundamental religious groups who “control the most important ministries”, and are strong enough to tie the hands of the King himself, and to the conservative nature of the Saudi society.

Al-Huwaider was treated respectfully by the security forces. She was released in the same afternoon but not without delay.

“My release was delayed because it was not easy to find a male guardian to vouch for me. They refused my own guarantees. The Saudi law does not allow the woman to be responsible for her behavior. Only when my brother arrived, who is younger than me by many years, did they agree to release me”.

This very procedure highlights the aim of Al-Huwaider’s lone demonstration: “I had a message with me when they arrested me, but they took it from me. In it I said: King Abdullah, give the Saudi woman her full citizenship rights”.

* Elham Manea is a Post Doctoral Fellow and a Lecturer at the Political Science Institute, Zurich University.

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