With the eyes of the world turned to Egypt and Mubarak’s resignation, few people heard about a rare protest that occurred on February 5, 2011 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Most stunning, the protesters were all female! As a rule, Arab men are the ones to lead protests, rarely allowing women to participate.
But forty Saudi women broke tradition last week and protested outside the Interior Ministry, waving posters, “God, free our prisoners” and demanding the release of male relatives who have been held in prison over a year without representation and trial. The Saudi government claims that the men are Al-Qaeda members, but how will anyone know the truth if the men are not allowed public trials?
The women’s protest was an unusual sign of discontent in a country not accustomed to public dissent. Their protest brought to mind the first of such protests during the first Gulf War, when women picked up the keys to their husband’s automobiles and drove through the streets of Riyadh, calling for the right to drive. (The sight of Kuwaiti women driving triggered Saudi women to question the restriction on female drivers in their own country.) Those brave women were harassed, fired from their jobs, and forced to go into hiding by religious clerics calling for their deaths. It is believed that one woman was even put to death by her own father.
This leads me to wonder what will happen to the current protesters in Saudi Arabia. Interestingly enough, the Saudi government and religious clerics were most incensed by the fact that the women traveled from surrounding villages into the capital without male guardians. When it comes to women, nothing is more important to Saudi officials than to keep them quietly under the “protection” of male family members.
(Here I am in Saudi Arabia with a Kuwaiti baby.)
During the twelve years I lived in Saudi Arabia, Saudi men have assured me that their women want to veil, have no interest in driving, and have no desire to participate in life outside the home. When I begged to differ, the men claimed to be protecting their women, and told me in sorrowful voices how tragic it was that I did not have a man to protect me, but instead, had to work outside the home to support myself.
Certainly, most Saudi women do not want the kind of freedom that western women enjoy. They live in an ultra-conservative society and would not feel comfortable traveling alone or making a life without the support of their families. Marriage and children are still one of the most important goals in a Saudi woman’s life. Nothing about my life startled Saudi friends more than hearing that I had made a personal choice not to have children. The concept of any woman not wanting children was beyond their realm of understanding.
Rather than drastic revolution, most Saudi women expressed their desires for simple change, such as the right to obtain an education, work in a field of their choice, and choose their own husband. Saudi women rarely voice one of the biggest problems in their society–the routine beating of a wife by her husband–but they are starting to call for Saudi authorities to become more involved in marital violence. Generally such violence is ignored, left to the discretion of the husband. The statistics are unknown because no one cares.
While I’ve been impressed with King Abdullah, who has bravely stood for change for Saudi women, I’ve also been told that even the king is limited in what he can do. The religious clerics are still a strong force in the kingdom, and they protest against any lifting of restrictions on female lives. Additionally, there are ultra-conservative forces within the royal family, and they do not support King Abdullah when it comes to lessening restrictions on women.
With the resignation of Mubarak, the world is closely watching the democratic process in Egypt. My hope is that during this exciting time, the world will not forget the women of Saudi Arabia, brave and strong women who also need the eyes of the world on their progress.