In one of the most conservative countries on earth, women are beginning to believe that there may be hope for equality — someday. The recent firing of Sheikh Abdel Mohsen Obeikan, an advisor to the Saudi Arabian royal court, was seen by many as a sign that King Abdullah may be embracing more liberal policies. Obeikan was known for his conservative views, particularly his strict interpretation of Islamic law and strong opposition to women’s rights.
According to NPR, firing the sheikh was not the only step King Abdullah has taken towards reform. “The kingdom has also opened up more avenues for women to work. There are female teachers and doctors. Just last year, lingerie stores were staffed only by men. Now, by government decree, female salesclerks work there. Cosmetic shops are next “” that change comes this summer.”
Although progress for women’s rights seems to be advancing at a turtle’s pace, the article points out that King Abdullah must be “wary of a backlash by Islamic conservatives and opposition within his own royal family if he moves too fast.” And fierce opposition is indeed a stark reality for the reform-minded king.
This past April, the Saudi sports minister and head of the Saudi National Olympic Committee announced that Saudi Arabia will not support women in practicing sports. The Human Rights Watch recently released a report entitled: Steps of the Devil: Denial of Women’s and Girls’ Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia, which illustrated “the systematic discrimination against women in sports in Saudi Arabia, including their exclusion from the 153 sports clubs regulated by Prince Nawwaf’s ministry, the Saudi National Olympic Committee (NOC), and the 29 national sporting federations, which are also overseen by Nawwaf in his capacity as head of the NOC” (Huffington Post).
With each step forward, women in Saudi Arabia know that there will always be someone forcing them to take two steps back. Change is happening slowly here, but many are hopeful that the Internet will continue to provide freedoms that the government has yet to seize.
In her recent piece, “Saudi Arabia, Women, and Judicial Reform,” Isobel Coleman writes: ”Dissent over women’s status in society will remain at the heart of competing visions for the country for a long time to come. As facts on the ground evolve”“with women making up the majority of college graduates, young generations connected in an unprecedented fashion to the internet and social media, and the need for a more competitive economy to support its burgeoning population-it will become increasingly untenable for Saudi Arabia to straddle both the 7thcentury and the 21st century.”
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