First Published 2010-03-07

A long way to go

Women rights in Saudi lag behind Gulf nations

Women in Gulf states ahead of Saudi counterparts in terms of political participation, freedom.

DUBAI - Two years after Wajiha al-Huwaidar defied a Saudi ban on women driving by posting a video on the Internet showing her cruising in a remote area, she still dreams of getting behind the wheel like her other Gulf sisters.

Huwaidar's brazen act on International Women's Day 2008 was a symbolic gesture in the ultra-conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where women's rights lag way behind those in other nations in the oil-rich Gulf.

"I'm still dreaming of driving," the women's rights activist -- whose 2008 You Tube video registered some 190,000 hits -- said in a telephone interview.

Unlike other Arab Gulf women, Saudi women still face an uphill struggle to gain political and social rights and need the consent of male guardians for almost everything, including obtaining a passport and travel.

They are also forced to cover up from head to toe when in public, and due to strict segregation rules their work opportunities are severely restricted.

Huwaidar is confident however that women will get into the driver's seat.

"Driving is going to happen during King Abdullah's time. Maybe this year," she said, adding that the 85-year-old monarch "wants to make history."

The reign of the reform-minded Abdullah has produced many changes since he ascended the throne in 2005 -- including last year's unprecedented nomination of a woman, Norah al-Fayez, to a ministerial post.

He also inaugurated in September the kingdom's first mixed-gender university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

The role of Saudi women was celebrated again in January when King Abdullah gave doctor Khawlah al-Kurai a top medal in recognition of her research work to fight cancer.

"There has been a clear and strong political drive aiming to allow mixing between genders... which would open many doors to women," said female lecturer at King Saud University, Hatoon al-Fassi.

But Fassi noted that because of the strict rules of segregation at the university, men and women academics cannot meet face-to-face but "over the phone."

"I don't feel any clarity in the future of the Saudi woman," she said.

In other Gulf states, women are ahead in terms of political participation and freedom.

In Kuwait, women gained the right to vote and stand for election in 2005 and made history in 2009 when four female lawmakers were voted into parliament.

"These rights did not come easily. They were a result of action, and a demand movement," said Kawthar al-Jawaan, the head of Kuwait's Women Empowerment Centre.

"The country and the society are open," unlike in Saudi Arabia, she said.

The Kuwaiti constitution guarantees personal freedoms.

Women in the United Arab Emirates, who stick to the traditional dress code of a black abaya cloak topped mostly with a loose head cover, have also made great strides -- and can cruise in fancy cars.

There are two women cabinet ministers in the UAE and several others hold top posts in government departments, amid an apparent official drive to push them to the forefront of decision-making.

"The (country's) leadership has been supportive," said Emirati political science lecturer Ibtisam al-Ketbi.

"Apart from Kuwait, getting rights in these societies tend to take the form of grants that are initiated by the leadership," she said.

Bahraini women, like their Kuwaiti counterparts, can dress as they wish and are represented by one woman in parliament.

Qatar does not have an elected parliament but a woman is part of the government in the gas-rich nation.

Oman was the first Gulf Arab country to give women the right to vote and run for public office in 1994.

But regardless of their achievements, said Ketbi, Gulf women, like most of their Arab sisters, are still "immature" when it comes to citizenship rights because they cannot pass their nationality to children born to foreign fathers.

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