Back in 2002, more than a dozen Saudi schoolgirls, along with foreign nationals, died in a school fire in Jeddah. The girls were all pupils at a local high school, which was later criticised for overcrowding, poor quality construction and poor fire drills.
But the blaze made headlines for another reason : because religious officials had blocked male firefighters from accessing the building, even as a staircase collapsed with escaping pupils still inside. Most of those killed in the fire could probably have been saved, had the local religious police (mutaween) not been so callous. Wahhabist doctrine dictated that girls escaping the building be sent back in to the compound, to collect their veils and headscarfs.
A major investigation was mounted. It was rare at the time for the Saudi government to be so publically criticised on such a sensitive issue. The authorities governing the gender segregation of Saudi schools were drastically reformed.
Have lessons been learned? In February, a female teacher at a university in Jeddah suffered a heart attack. Again, officials prevented male paramedics entering, again on religious grounds.The teacher died before help could arrive.
In response, Saudi health officials have announced that one hundred female nurses will be trained as paramedics, with plans to expand the programme to three thousand. But even when trained, the female paramedics won’t be able to drive – a ban is still in place.
The future of feminism in Saudi Arabia may seem pretty bleak, comparing these two stories. There is still an institutionalised aversion to equality, sometimes taken to an extreme, which endures despite gradual reforms.
However, a growing number of Saudi activists are pushing the government to move faster and make the Kingdom fairer towards women.
The last year has seen some notable successes, including a new domestic violence law, the first female editor-in-chief of a Saudi newspaper, the appointment of thirty Saudi women to the Shoura council, and the appointment of four female lawyers. Two women were also appointed to senior positions within the Ministry of Health and the Saudi embassy in Washington. More recently, women have been allowed to use their own identity documents in court (rather than relying on a guardian), and will be able to take part in municipal elections in 2015.
Sabria Jahwar, a Saudi Arabian journalist and columnist, who has advocated womens rights across much of her work, says there is much to be celebrated but knows there is more to be done.
“We need to improve the family courts, or even just introduce the idea of family courts,” she explains. “Reviewing the child custody and alimony laws as well, although there has been some progress in this aspect.”
Jahwar points to recent changes that deduct alimony payments from the husbands salary directly, similar to a tax payment. Men attempting to outfox the support payments will be placed on a watchlist, and stopped at any exit or entry border point.
Jahwar is also pressing for reform on the guardianship system.
“The system needs to be revised in a way that doesn’t contradict Islam, but also does not control women and affect their well-being, depending on the mood and desire of the guardian.”
Jahwar points out that Saudi Arabian women actually have high levels of economic activity, even if they are not widely employed.
“I’m based in Jeddah – the Chamber of Commerce did a study about four years ago showing that women there had just under $2bn in real estate investments.”
“Jobwise, things are not so rosy,” admits Jahwar. According to United Nations research conducted in 2012, Saudi Arabia has one of the lowest employment rates for women in the Middle East. “We need more job opportunities for women, especially in the sciences. We also need to better facilitate their movement, either giving women the right to drive a car, or provide better public transportation.”
Adam Coogle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, believes dismantling the guardianship system will be key
“Some of the measures that have been taken are very important, he told Memo. “But none of it has really undermined the substance of the male guardianship system, whereby men control women’s lives and the law treats them as legal minors. What needs to happen now is a mixture of changes to the law in some cases and intervention to end discriminatory practices in others.”
“Employment firms for example,” says Coogle, “Do not have to seek guardian approval to hire a woman, but it appears that many of them continue to do it, and it is not clear whether this is a violation of the law or not.”
“The authorities should make clear that firms cannot seek male guardian approval to hire a woman, and take legal action against those who do it.”
Coogle says this practice is also widespread amongst hospitals, where women are routinely not being allowed to dictate their own treatments.
Kay Hardy Campbell, a writer and lecturer who spent eight years living in Saudi Arabia, remembers breaking a major story for Saudi Business Magazine back in 1980, about Saudi women in the workplace. She told Memo that the activist network in Saudi Arabia is in good shape with plenty of relevant experience.
“Saudi women have, for decades, been working to better their society through philanthropic and charity groups,” Campbell observes. “These groups help foster generations of very capable and educated women who have now become engaged on the public level to improve things for Saudi women and families.”
Campbell also thinks social media has played a role in galvanising activist networks. “I think the world until recently had no idea of how capable and dedicated Saudi women are to their country.”
The role of local activists is critical, says Jawhar.
“Saudi conservatives react badly, if not hysterically, to perceived Western pressure, and institute calls for stricter measures.”
“A case in point was the driving demonstration last October, that ended with a whimper,” she remembers. “Western activists were so excited and created such a hub-bub over it that the government clamped down any woman behind the wheel.”
“Honestly, would the United States and the UK appreciate calls, if not demands, from Muslim countries to cover up their women for the sake of modesty and teach a little religion in schools to give their kids a moral base?”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.