Sawhney and Stratton: Debating King Abdullah’s policies on women’s rights

Abigail Stratton and Asha Sawhney

The king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, died Friday at 90 after a reign of almost 10 years. He leaves behind a country where women do not have the right to drive and yet they outnumber men at universities. Some portray Abdullah of Saudi Arabia as a strategic advocate of women’s rights and a reformist of sorts in what is considered an extremely conservative country with “one of the most tightly controlled governments on the planet.” Others, however, criticize the slow pace of the movement and his lack of opposition against conservative factions. Was Abdullah truly a champion of women’s right and, if so, where does his death leave the movement?

Abigail Stratton:

Saudi Arabia is by no means a model for women’s rights. The World Economic Forum 2013 Global Gender Gap Report ranked the country 127th out of 136 countries included for gender parity. This report measures gender-based gaps in access to resources and opportunities in individual countries. Regardless of age, religion or status, all women are required to have a male guardian and are prohibited from driving and voting in national elections.

However, during his time in power, Abdullah began implementing change to extend women’s rights, albeit incrementally. Although their actions are still incredibly restricted by American standards, women are now permitted to vote in the 2015 local elections, thanks to a 2011 royal decree that gave women the right to vote and run in future municipal elections. This move, spearheaded by Abdullah, is championed as one of the most important advances of Saudi women’s rights in decades. “I believe strongly in the rights of women,” Abdullah once said. “My mother is a woman, my sister is a woman, my daughter is a woman, my wife is a woman.”

Women in Saudi Arabia are still, in many ways, considered second class citizens. Abdullah is being criticized as the so-called “reformist King” who moved too slowlyBy Western standards, he probably did, but he set the basis for future reform and extension of women’s rights. We must remind ourselves to examine these reforms in the context of Saudi Arabia’s culture. Saudi Arabia, being the conservative country that it is, has a long and slow road to reform that will likely draw opposition from the extremely conservative population. Frank Gardner of the BBC remarked, “In Saudi terms, King Abdullah was a reformer, making princes pay their phone bills and giving women their first ever seats in the high-level consultative council.”

Saudi Arabia continues to receive criticism for its lack of women’s rights, but it continues advancements towards modernization. Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, described King Abdullah as a “strong advocate for women.” She claimed that his support “was very gradual, appropriately so probably for the country.” King Abdullah helped ease restrictions on women entering education and the workforce, which brought thousands of Saudi women into the workforce. Higher education is currently dominated by women, with females constituting 60 percent of the total student population.

To answer the two questions posed, I think Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was a champion of women’s rights within the cultural context of Saudi Arabia. In many ways, he is the first ruler to take decisive and measurable action to advance the position of women. According to Tufts University professor Ibrahim Warde, he had “ambitious goals” while still being conscious of the incredible power of tradition in Saudi Arabia. Advancements in education and the professional world are key to moving toward modernization and giving women a semblance of power. Abdullah bin Abdulaziz laid the base to further advance the rights of women as they move forward, and he did so within Saudi Arabia’s traditional and conservative culture.

Asha Sawhney:

Before taking a stance on the progress toward women’s rights under Abdullah’s reign, it is important to note that no step in this area is too small and no person who enacts change should go unrecognized. It is clear that the late Abdullah of Saudi Arabia did create some positive change for the women in his kingdom. However, was this change enough to continue after his death, or will the movement be quashed by conservative factions?

Many of Abdullah’s reforms aimed at women impacted their economic freedom. He allowed for women to work as cashiers and shop owners, and allowed them to fill job quotas for domestic companies. From 2009 to 2014, more than 400,000 women were added to the Saudi Arabian workforce. The king also funded the first non-segregated university in the country and allowed women to study abroad on scholarships with a male chaperone. It is likely this economic change will stick beyond Abdullah’s reign. If the government wants to continue its unprecedented economic growth, then impeding women from joining the workforce when they hold over half of the college degrees in a country is impossible to justify.

The problem with the women’s rights policies enacted by the king is their top-down strategies. Women may be more educated and empowered in the workforce, but they still can’t drive or be in public without a male chaperone. Until these fundamental rights are given, the conservative faction will still have control over the female population. The outlook on these rights is grim considering Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s successor, Prince Salman, leans more to the political right and cautions against “fast-paced reforms” in areas like women’s rights.

It is possible that the late king truly did hold women’s rights close to his heart, but it is also possible that he saw these rights as an acceptable by-product of economic development and growth. For transformational change to occur within the nation, women need to have advocates in the government who alleviate daily barriers to their success and are willing to openly speak about their desire to do so. With King Abdullah’s death, I am unsure when such an advocate will come about. This is not an insult toward him; within the confines of a government based on Wahhabi Shariah law, any monarch has a lot to lose by explicitly being a women’s rights activist.

Contrary to popular belief in the West, some of the most successful efforts for gender equality in the Middle East have been by women and for women. The movement for the right to drive is coming from within the female population; last year 60 women drove and uploaded videos in defiance of the kingdom. On another front, women are slowly gaining power in the government — last year they gained the right to serve on the government’s top advisory council. Women in countries such as Saudi Arabia have an incredible resilience and ability to create change despite some of the greatest political restrictions and dangers for doing so. The best bet for women to move forward is to continuing to create a culture of collaborative activism. They should devote their energy into lifting each other up as national advocates for the movement, rather than depending on a male royal figure who has to remain on the fence due to his loyalties first to the conservative government and then second to women.

Abby Stratton is a Weinberg freshman. She can be reached at [email protected]. Asha Sawhney is a Weinberg freshman. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]