From Big Issue in the North magazine, please buy it when you see a seller.
Despite recent improvements there is still a long way to go before women enjoy equal rights in Saudi Arabia, say human rights campaigners.
In February King Abdullah appointed for the first time ever a number of women to the advisory body the Shura council. Last year two Saudi women became the first from the country to compete in the Olympics. Both decisions caused an outcry from conservatives in the Arab state of 16 million citizens and an estimated 11 million foreign workers who are employed to exploit the world’s largest oil reserves.
As Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy there have never been any elections since its establishment in 1932. The king is expected to abide by sharia law and the teachings of the Quran, both of which have been interpreted in widely different fashions, including one that argues that the qualities of leadership and decision making are bestowed only to men.
According to Adam Coogle, researcher on Saudi Arabia for Human Rights Watch (HRW), the king has made a number of improvements to women’s rights since coming to power in 2005. They include allowing the Ministry of Justice to issue its first trainee license to a female law graduate and a new law that prevents men from refusing to get their wives or daughters ID cards by making it a requirement that women do this themselves.
These are largely symbolic changes. But, in addition, between 2011-12, the Saudi Ministry of Labour issued a series of decrees easing restrictions on women entering employment in clothing stores, factories and amusement parks or working as cashiers without the approval of a male guardian.
Coogle said: “Importantly, anecdotal evidence also suggests that women are now being allowed to work in most sectors without written approval from a male guardian.
“However the guardianship system still exists and girls and women are forbidden from travelling, conducting official business, marrying oundergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardian. Until Saudi Arabia does away with this discriminatory system women will not approach equality with men in society.”
Halifax MP Linda Riordan has maintained an interest in Saudi affairs since she was a researcher for her predecessor Alice Mahon and worked to free a British worker jailed in Riyadh for a crime he did not commit.
She said: “The recent sentencing there of two women to prison for helping a woman abused by her husband greatly disturbs me. It is therefore pleasing that HRW is noting some improvements in women’s rights. Our government must exert pressure on the Saudis to move much more quickly. The problem is that governments fear losing trade with an oil-rich country by being critical.”
Coogle feels all Western countries prefer to raise any human rights and equality issues behind closed doors. He said: “It would be more helpful if they issued public statements about human rights violations and the need to enact reforms that cut to the heart of the guardianship system itself.
“Public pressure works better as bad press moves Saudi Arabia more than quiet lobbying, as many members of the royal family are very image-conscious. Public statements also tend to bolster the forces within the royal family who do want to see changes.”