Friday, March 9, 2012

International Women's Day: Celebrating Saudi Women

From Forbes magazine. The article is pasted below, a link to the story is here.

Natalie Robehmed
Natalie Robehmed, Forbes Staff
I write about the Middle East for Forbes

International Women's Day: Celebrating Saudi Arabian Women

This International Women’s Day, a ForbesWoman post asked: “What Are We Celebrating, Anyway? Well, perhaps it’s not a “what” but a “who” – Saudi Arabian women. Spearheaded by the Saudi women’s driving campaign, 2011 saw groundbreaking changes in regulations that allow women to work and participate in the Kingdom’s political bodies.
In the wake of the Arab spring’s internet presence, it should come as no surprise that Women2Drive, the hashtag which symbolized the Saudi women’s driving campaign on Facebook and Twitter, trended internationally last year. Its Facebook page currently has over 17,000 likes.
The slogan represents a movement which seeks to overturn the de facto ban on women driving in the Kingdom. Although there is no out-and-out law banning female drivers, licenses are not issued to women, even if they hold other international permits. Women risk sentences of fines, jail or floggings for driving.
Supporters of the Women2Drive campaign claim the ban is a costly restriction on Saudi women, forcing them to pay thousands of dollars a year for a driver.
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The movement, which peaked with a series of women’s drives last June, drew worldwide attention to the issue. The repercussions for women drivers were far smaller than a similar 1990 campaign, when 47 women were arrested. Last year one activist, Mania al-Sharif, received 10 days in prison. Another driver, Shaima Jastaniah, was sentenced to 10 lashes, which was later overturned by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.
Abdullah has not yet indicated when women would be allowed to drive.
New legislation means monumental changes in women’s opportunity for employment in Saudi, as women are now allowed to work as sales clerks in lingerie stores. Now, this may seem like a small change, but the move counts for more than just meaning women no longer have to discuss their bra sizes with men. Advocates consider it an important step for the increasing number of young women who want to enter the workplace.
A staggering 45.8% of Saudi females are unemployed, according to 2008 figures. The BBC reported the new law could create up to 40,000 jobs for ordinary Saudi women who have had little prior opportunity to work in a job market where employment is usually limited to the educated female elite.
2011 was also a year of political improvement for Saudi women. King Abdullah announced that starting in 2015, women will have the right to stand and vote in future local elections. Women were barred from the Kingdom’s first municipal elections in 2005, but were promised permission to vote in the next round, scheduled for 2009. These elections were pushed back to 2011, when women were once again excluded. Abdullah’s decree comes as a welcome step in the right direction.
Abdullah also declared women would be able to join the consultative Shura council as full voting members. Women first joined the Shura council – an advisory board to the King – in 2006, when six women were appointed. That number has now increased to 12, and looks set to keep rising.
Whilst 2011 may have been a year of change for Saudi women, problems still persist. Saudi Arabia recently invoked international outrage when it declared it would not be bringing a women’s team to the London Olympics in 2012.

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