December 21, 2015, by Sunita Tailor
The Written Word: the Saudi Woman’s Window into Politics and Equality
This blog post was written by second year English student, Victoria Lorriman from the School of English.
Saudi Arabia has elected about 17 female councillors from across the country in Saturday’s first ever municipal council elections open to female voters and candidates. Two days previously, the country’s election commission reported that Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi was elected to the council of Madrakah – a region in the holy city of Mecca. According to the official Saudi Press Agency, election commission president Osama al-Bar said that she was running against 7 men and 2 women. In a country where women cannot leave their homes unaccompanied by a male guardian, (a mahram), the elections are a historical landmark.
However, critics point out the numerous legal constraints that prevented women from participating as equals to men. To name a couple, Abeer Mishkhas, a Saudi columnist who writes for The Guardian, explains that female candidates are banned from speaking to male voters and neither gender can use their pictures on campaign posters. Such criticism implies that the government’s alterations to Saudi women’s voting and campaigning rights simply create the pretence of equality within their political system. Even if this is the case, women can, and have been, using this slight opening into politics to inspire the public through the written word.
Although Saudi women are still far from sharing equal political power with men, it is what they do with their opportunity to influence public opinion that matters. The written word, especially in the form of social media, acts as an indispensable tool for women that permit them to communicate with voters, irrespective of gender. During the elections, the internet enabled candidates to connect with male and female voters on both a local and global scale. Rasha Hefzi, a businesswoman who won a seat in Jeddah, used social media to create a profile that outlined her enthusiasm about not only women’s participation in council affairs, but the engagement of both genders in flood relief and town planning in her local area on the Red Sea coast. Elected female councillors will only really have a localised influence, due to their authority being limited to discussing planning, development and community issues, but the fact that genders are finally mixing in the Saudi Arabian government will start to have an effect on the worldwide view of women’s importance in the workplace.
If the world continues to believe that conservative, cultural constraints placed upon Saudi women will prevent them from achieving equality, the women will struggle to become equal to men both legally and in the minds of others.Throughout the 21st century, writers have been fighting global misconceptions about the impact women have upon progress in Saudi Arabia. Dr Mona Al Munajjed has recently published Saudi Women: A Celebration of Success, a book celebrating the achievements of educated, professional women who are leaders in fields including science, medicine and social welfare. By representing women as crucial but unrecognised influencers upon Saudi Arabia’s economy and labour market, Al Munajjed educates both genders about changes that Saudi women are making from inside the world of business.
Educating the public through the written word about the unappreciated successes of certain Saudi women in the workplace, who have reached high statuses despite cultural barriers, is a necessary catalyst in the modernisation of Saudi Arabia’s social, political and economic systems. Once women and men alike realise that Saudi women are important facilitators of change in their country, it is more likely that these women will receive improved education and training that will allow them to gradually break into male-dominated areas, such as politics.
Therefore, it does not really matter whether female candidates won in the municipal council elections or not. What matters is that Saudi women can use this window into politics to alter their global stereotypes, opening the opportunity to strive for a more tolerant and equal culture.
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