Saudi women making stride
By : Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The pediatric clinic of Dr. Amal Bader Al-Deen is in a middle-class neighborhood of Riyadh. She was one of the first women in the country to earn her medical degree abroad in the 1970s. She studied in Austria, by the way. Today, she still treats her young patients at her quiet clinic, the waiting areas decorated with brightly flowered wallpaper. She was also one of the more than 900 female candidates for a place on the municipal councils of the whole country in yesterday’s elections.
It was the first time that the Saudi women voted in municipal elections and took part in the exercise as candidates for a seat on one of the 284 municipal councils in the country, with two-thirds, or 2,106 seats, directly elected by more than 1.35 million Saudis, mostly men. According to the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, responsible for organizing the elections, 1.35 million people had registered for the elections, and only 130,637 women registered as voters. Government appointments will fill the other one-third of vacancies on the councils. Voting is not mandatory in Saudi Arabia, which partially explains why the voter numbers are so low.
“Every step I have taken in my life I consider a great victory,” Bader Al-Deen told me in an interview at her clinic in November, when I was in Riyadh. “I see it in my grandchildren. Each step forward we take is a victory. We, Saudi women, have freedom from the cradle. The world sees us as a closed society, but we are more open than people think.”
She knows how to drive and supports the campaign to legalize the right of women do the same. But the doctor also supports the gradual pace that our rulers have taken to bring changes to our conservative society. “I respect the way of our country going gradually forward. You cannot push things too quickly. But we have many women working in hospitals, even in the Shoura Council and how many thousands of women are graduating every year from our universities?” she noted.
In the 12-day election campaign period, all candidates, men and women alike, were forbidden to put their photos on posters or advertisements. Bader Al-Deen said it was not important to show her face: “I do not want to attract people with my face. I want to attract voters with my mind.”
During her campaign, the doctor focused on the neglect of the elderly, the abandonment of divorced women and the youth that is left adrift without having something constructive to do when they’re not studying. “Young people need educational recreation centers. We have to find ways to make them more creative and set up small laboratories for them,” said Bader Al-Deen. “And we cannot leave our elderly in front of TVs and computers. We need more public libraries to stimulate the minds of the young and the old.”
Last week, it was announced that divorced women and widows would be entitled to family ID cards, which will allow them to act independently in the legal sphere, enrolling their children in schools, traveling out of the country and scheduling medical procedures without the approval of a male guardian. This change in the law came after female members of the Shoura Council put the issue on the agenda and the body approved the change. This new law was sent to the Interior Ministry, which upheld the decision of the Shoura. This was perhaps one of the most important advances in the rights of Saudi women in many years.
As can be seen from these examples, the situation of Saudi women is improving every day, and most of them are not giving up and feeling sorry for themselves. They are active, studying in large numbers and also working outside the home.
This is changing the country, bringing Saudi society into a new era. I am very curious to see which and how many women will have gotten elected. Certainly, Saudi Arabia is changing, and for the better.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.