One protest does not make a Revolution make, nor a few crumbs of royal concessions to women, a Saudi spring. King Abdullah’s declaration that women will be able to vote and stand in the next local elections in 2015 is progress, despite earlier promises of women being allowed to vote in last week’s opinion polls. There is, then, much to be done as Saudi Arabia remains the only country on this planet that prohibits women from driving. However, there is evidence that many women in Saudi Arabia do not want radical change, and those in favour of reform have little or no political power.
Is it then that the West simply fails to understand? Many advocates of reform in Saudi Arabia and those of Saudi origin reject western critics for “failing to understand the uniqueness of Saudi society.” In 2006, a government poll found that over 80 percent of Saudi women do not think women should drive or work with men. However, changes can be seen as King Abdullah (allegedly a reformer), has appointed a woman as minister for women’s education, despite having to fight his conservative brothers and the ultra-orthodox clergy every step of the way. Although the King claimed that religious leaders had endorsed the change, the Grand Mufti, the most senior religious leader, warned that involving women in politics could mean “opening the door to evil.”
Saudi women make up 58% of graduates but only comprise 14% of the workforce and are largely confined to certain professions that are considered “suitable” for women. The legal profession, for example, is a no-go zone, and even where reform has been brought in, it is often thwarted by Wahhabi zealots. Approximately 71% to 78% of females are literate, in comparison to 85% of men, and in court; the testimony of one man equals that of two women.
King Abdullah recently announced $130 billion dollars spending over a decade on measures such as affordable housing, after the first governments were toppled in Tunisia and Egypt, while he actively supported the Bahraini Government in their brutal crackdown. In an attempt to keep the clergy on his side, money was poured into building mosques and media criticism of senior clerics was banned. It seems that King Abdullah’s reforms aren’t about change, but rather, they are about preserving the status quo in a kingdom where violence against women is rarely prosecuted and marital rape, unrecognised. Saudi women may not feel the need for radical change, but from reading the facts it is apparent that reform is necessary to some degree. Whether these reforms will be brought in now or later, depends entirely on the will of the Saudi people.