Articles and commentary regarding the inner side of world events

December 13, 2015



A woman has won a seat on a municipal council for the first time in Saudi Arabia, after the kingdom lifted its bar on women taking part in elections. Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi won a seat in Mecca province in Saturday's vote.


Women have also won in several other regions in the country, including Jeddah and Qatif, reports suggest.  Officials said about 130,000 women had registered to vote in Saturday's poll, compared with 1.35 million men. - BBC New - 12-13-15




This week in Saudi Arabia women voted for the first time and a woman was elected for the first time as councillor to a district council in Mecca.  And yet of the female population eligible to vote it was estimated that barely 130,000 voted compared to over one million men.  When asked why they did not vote, the answer to interviewers often appeared to be that they believed that the election would not fundamentally affect their daily lives.  Indeed, among women there were those who boycotted the election because they perceived it to be 'window dressing' for an international audience and an effort to gain the good will of world opinion rather than something that would actually change the way in which women were treated within their country.

The way of treating women in Saudi Arabia as in many other Middle Eastern countries has confounded westerners for a long time.  Through the personal narratives of Saudi women, and through reports from aid agencies and news agencies serving in that area, we obtain an image of a nation where patriarchy predominates, and of a way of life which appoints men as 'guardians' of women throughout their affairs and throughout much of their lives as well.  This 'guardianship' has exercised control over the freedom of women at a time when this has come to the fore in many other places in the world. Saudi Arabia, in its more traditional beliefs and values has, in the past, stood in vast contrast to the growth and modern leaps forward that have taken place in cities throughout the Middle East.  Traditional values, upheld by many still, have prevented women from appearing alone in public, from traveling anwhere without a male family member to accompany them, from running their own business, from seeking an education, from driving, from voting, and from exercising control over their own bodies.


Of this list, that which has come to the attention of human rights activists and feminists as of highest priority has been the treatment that many young girls endure through a 'purification rite' that the west has come to call 'female genital mutilation' (FGM).  This brutal treatment is a centuries old practice within certain traditional societies that continues to this day.    By traditionalists it is often seen (among other reasons) as a way of guaranteeing the purity of a young girl before marriage, making her thereby more attractive to a potential husband. 

In light of this awareness of the vast inequalities that sill exist between men and women within Saudi culture, what shall we think of the recent election and the appointment of a woman to office? Shall we view it as a symbol of an emerging new reality or as a 'cover' for an older reality that seeks to perpetuate its own position of power.  And if it is a symbol, will it substantially affect the lives of the women who did not vote and the men who are their 'guardians' within the framework of patriarchal values?

Symbols have power.  They have power to change lives for better or worse.  They have power because they stir emotions one way or the other and cause people to respond, sometimes immediately and often over time. 


Symbols can plant seeds in consciousness, the seeds of hope, the seeds of a new vision.  Like a newborn infant that arrives in the world bringing something into physical existence that did not exist a moment before, a visible symbol such as a woman holding public office can affect an entire generation of onlookers - can affect the young Saudi girls of today who see not just one woman holding a place among the many men of similar status who surround her, but who see  themselves in her.

This is the effect of a symbol in its highest and truest form, namely, that even though it may not, in the present, alter the observable structure and expression of the reality in which most people live, it begins to alter the foundational premises of that reality.  It begins to create the possibility of looking at that reality in a new way, a different way.  And so what was seamless and hard as rock, what was impenetrable and beyond doubt, begins to develop cracks in it.  It begins to be held as one of several possible points of view.  In this way, out of a potent symbolic expression such as one woman holding public office, a nation can begin to conceive of a new reality where no such alternative existed before.




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