Women in Saudi Arabia

Winds of Change in Riyadh

Addressing the position of women in Saudi society is a top priority for the country's king; and now his former education minister has written a book calling for equality between men and women. The debate, it seems, is well and truly underway. By Joseph Croitoru

Pilgrims at Mount Arafat (photo: dpa)
Innovative religious mediation: By Saudi standards, this photograph is highly unusual. It shows an unveiled woman on holy mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia holding the Koran and reading to the men who are following her cues

​​ Just a few days ago Saudi Arabia was elected a member of the Executive Council of "UN Women", the new women's organisation of the United Nations. Although the decision was met with some scepticism in the West, in the home of Islam itself it is being interpreted as recognition for the progress the country has already made on women's rights issues. Change is definitely in the air in Riyadh, one indication of this being the latest publication by former Saudi education minister Muhammad Ahmad al-Rashid, "Muslim women between religious equity and the comprehension of fundamentalists".

Al-Rashid, who carried out a modernisation of the rigid Saudi education system between 1996 and 2005, has chosen not to publish the book in his own country. But publication in the relatively liberal Beirut has ensured that it is already causing quite a stir in the Arab world. It is striking that both the Saudi international newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and the local government paper Al-Watan have contributed to this. Both of them discussed the book at length and welcomed its provocative thesis as stimulation to debate, and al-Rashid certainly does not mince his words when it comes to his advocacy of equality for women.

End to public segregation of the sexes

The ex-minister condemns the opinion of those religious scholars who wish to prescribe the wearing of the headscarf and the veil for Muslims as a "minority view" and "over the top". That several of the scholars associated with the Saudi religious establishment are among those described in this way is something that adds a particular spice to the description, particularly as it coincides with current rather surprising developments in the Wahhabi state.

Photo: picture-alliance/dpa
Top-down reformer: In terms of gender relations, King Abdullah is the ruler of one of the most patriarchal countries in the world

​​ King Abdallah himself, no less, caused a sensation a few months ago when he had his photograph taken amid a group of local women activists, hardly any of whom were wearing the veil. This historic moment was captured in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and distributed throughout the Islamic world. Along with its implied semi-official rejection of the notion of compulsory veiling, it was also interpreted as an indication that the king is behind Rashid on another question very close to his ex-minister's heart – the overturning of the Saudi government's strictly enforced segregation of the sexes in public.

Muslim women's right to education

The ex-minister is calling for schools as well as university classes to become coeducational. He has even called for a re-think on why it is that women who attend mosques to pray are relegated to areas at the back and the sides rather than being allowed into the main area, the preserve of the men. As far as he is concerned, this is not an indication of equality. Rashid's insistence on the rights of Muslim women to education must be seen as part of the policy of modernisation that he himself pursued, under international pressure, in the years following the 9/11 attacks of 2001, and which continues to take shape in Saudi Arabia.

It is the king himself, who regards women's rights as a priority, who is behind all this. In spring 2009, he appointed teacher Norah al-Faiz to the post of deputy minister for women's education, making her the first female member of the Council of Ministers of Saudi Arabia. The tireless campaigner has succeeded not only in establishing the right of women to take on leadership positions in the previously exclusively male-dominated management of girls' schools.

The taboo of physical education for girls

Photo: picture-alliance/dpa
Tireless campaigner: Norah al-Faiz, Saudi Arabia's first female member of the Council of Ministers

​​On a recent visit to a training camp for pupils preparing for a youth Olympics she told participants she could imagine one of them in the role of minister in the future. It caused quite a stir in the Saudi and other Arab media. It seems that this statement brought the deputy minister as little criticism as did her recent remark to some Indian visitors that physical education in the schools – an absolute taboo topic in Saudi Arabia – was not unthinkable, though society would first need time to get used to the idea.

Though there are occasional complaints from conservative fundamentalists about the deputy minister's tendency to appear in public without being fully veiled, the royal family pays little heed. Where all this may be leading has recently been becoming apparent.

Take the front page of the "Al-Jazirah" newspaper of November 16, for example. Right there, on the front page, was a picture of a pair of pilgrims sitting on a stone on holy mount Arafat absorbed in study of the Koran – and it is the woman, unveiled, if you please, who is holding the holy book and reading to the men. It is no coincidence that the caption stresses her role as that of religious mediator. The government is planning to substantially increase the number of women involved in looking after the religious pilgrims.

Joseph Croitoru

© Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de 2010

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