Despite successful protests in North Africa and the Middle East, the status of women’s rights and participation in the wake of reform remains in question.
But in Saudi Arabia, inspired by the online grassroots campaigns that mobilized uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, women are organizing for an equal rights revolution.
“When I saw the revolts in other Arab countries, I felt ashamed that the ladies of Saudi Arabia are still the most insulted creatures in this world and that we are still silent about it,” Nuha Al Sulaiman, the 28-year-old spokeswoman and creator of the online Saudi Women Revolution movement, said in an email interview.
What started as a hashtag on Twitter is gaining momentum on Facebook; Sulaiman, a businesswoman, with founding partners are now breaking that silence as thousands join their cause.
“We are planning to let our voices be heard,” Sulaiman said, “By the whole world, by all possible ways.”
Earlier this month, the group coordinated meetings in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam. In the three cities, a few dozen women gathered to organize and outline demands.
Sowing the seeds of women’s suffrage, the organizers at the Saudi Women Revolution are working with the Baladi, or “My Country” campaign, to reap the rewards in the upcoming September election. It will be an uphill battle.
The second national ballot ever sanctioned by the country’s monarch, the democratic exercise was perhaps offered by the government to deflect popular unrest that led to revolt in neighboring countries, on the one hand. But on the other, by banning women from voting, the government has “insulted the dignity” of women and so incited them to organize.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the 2011 U.S.-Islamic World Forum pointed to women’s empowerment as a cornerstone of democracy in the Middle East. Preempting such exclusions of women from the political process, she said, “You cannot have a claim to a democracy if half the population is left out.”
The Saudi Women Revolution is dedicated to achieving such parity.
“We will try what we can to awaken Saudi women and Saudi society to get our rights,” Sulaiman said. “This is a place in the world where women are still fighting for basic rights.”
Opposing the male guardian system that the government pledged to eradicate in 2009 at the United Nations Human Rights Council – but two years later, has yet to do so – the movement’s other goal is to secure rights for the 9 million women in Saudi Arabia.
Under the current system, the authority of a woman’s work, travel, marriage, education, and legal proceeding are placed in the control of a male guardian – adversaries compare it to slavery.
“While the world is developing and moving forward the Saudi women are still in the same place,” Sulaiman said. Barred even from driving, women are treated as virtual “minors,” though any woman committing a crime there faces the full-force of adult-law.
“We are in a miserable situation,” Sulaiman said. Through dialogue with King Abdullah bin-Abdul Aziz and other authorities, Sulaiman is confident the Saudi Women Revolution can change that reality. The group hopes also to establish a special government agency dedicated to women’s affairs.
Echoing Clinton’s assertion that “Islam and women’s rights are compatible,” Sulaiman said there was no religious justification for the suppression of rights in Saudi Arabia.
“There is no excuse to violate our rights as human beings,” she said, not “because of any reasons.”
“[The] Qur’an didn’t say we can’t drive,” pointing to the Islamic holy book, the foundation of the Saudi Constitution, Sulaiman argued, “[The Qur’an] didn’t say we’re suppose to live as minors our whole lives, it didn’t say we shouldn’t participate in elections!”
Garnering support worldwide from activists and writers, men and women, Sulaiman calls on clerics to help the Saudi Women Revolution.
The group is set to issue its formal demands next week.
“We are still in the beginning and we know we will face a lot of ignorance,” Sulaiman explained that the group was willing to overcome any fears to move forward and that regardless, “We will never give up.”
Because protesting is illegal, when asked if she was personally afraid, Sulaiman said that her greatest fear was dying before earning equal rights for women in Saudi Arabia.
The quoted content in this article is the result of an interview I conducted with Sulaiman via email correspondence. For verification purposes, please see the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page and note the email address listed there: SaudiWomenrevolution@gmail.com.