First women political leaders in Saudi Arabia – Role of women in Islamic societies!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
Saudi Arabia, the most important nation in West Asia, has successfully conducted local elections in municipalities to strengthen the truly democratic roots of the kingdom, enabling women to contest and win polls.
Women have been elected to municipal councils in Saudi Arabia for the first time after a ban on women taking part in elections was lifted. As a historic development, Saudi Arabia is pushing for electoral reforms in a striking manner by allowing women candidates for municipal elections and as a result, 19 women candidates have been declared elected, for the first time in the history of Saudi kingdom, to Saudi municipalities, polls for which were held on December 12.
Of course, elections of any kind are rare in the Saudi kingdom – Saturday was only the third time in history that Saudis had gone to the polls. There were no elections in the 40 years between 1965 and 2005. The decision to allow women to take part was taken by the late King Abdullah and is seen as a key part of his legacy. In announcing the reforms, King Abdullah said women in Saudi Arabia “have demonstrated positions that expressed correct opinions and advice”. Before he died in January, he appointed 30 women to the country’s top advisory Shura Council.
There were 2,100 council seats available in Saturday’s vote. An additional 1,050 seats are appointed with approval from the king. A total of 978 women registered as candidates, alongside 5,938 men. Women competed for the seats on the councils—the only popularly elected bodies in this kingdom. Officials said about 130,000 women had registered to vote in Saturday’s poll, compared with 1.35 million men. The disparity was attributed by female voters to bureaucratic obstacles and a lack of transport. Until now, female candidates were also not allowed to address male voters directly during campaigning.
Women were elected in Mecca, Jawf and Tabuk.. Women also won in several other regions in the country, including Jeddah and Qatif, reports suggested. Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi was named as Saudi Arabia’s first elected female politician, after winning a seat on the council in Madrakah in Mecca province. She was running against seven men and two women.
One-third of council seats are appointed by the municipal affairs ministry, leaving women optimistic that they will be assigned some of them.
Electioneering was low key, with rules preventing photographs of candidates applying to both men and women. But win or lose, the female contenders said they were already victorious. As soon as news of some women candidates winning municipal council seats from Makkah region came out, there was celebration by voters on Sunday.
The women, who won hail from vastly different parts of the country, ranging from Saudi Arabia’s largest city to a small village near Islam’s holiest site. According to Saudi officials, Saturday’s municipal poll, which was hailed by many as historic, saw a turnout of about 47 percent. Women competed for places on 284 councils whose powers are restricted to local affairs including responsibility for streets, public gardens and rubbish collection.
Women are banned from driving and must cover themselves in public in the conservative kingdom, which was the world’s last country to give its women the right to vote. Many women saw the election as a turning point in this absolute monarchy where the political system remains firmly in the hands of the royal family, and women are still deprived of many basic rights—such as driving or traveling abroad without the permission of a male relative.
In the coastal city of Jeddah, the atmosphere inside a girls’ school used as a polling station was jubilant. Women posed for pictures behind the ballot box and yelled “Mabrook,” Arabic for congratulations, to one another as they exited. Among the winners was Rasha Hefzi, a social worker who secured a seat in the coastal city of Jeddah. “It’s very difficult because it’s the first time—and we are competing against men,” she said before the results were announced. “But people are thirsty for change.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera hours before polls opened, several women said they felt excited and positive that women were participating, with the hope that society as a whole would benefit from more diversity in public affairs leadership. ” Saudi women here are doctors and engineers – it’s not like women aren’t there,” Lama al-Sulaiman, a candidate in Jeddah, told Al Jazeera. “The international media sometimes has narrow views; they only report the bad stories. We have them, we have weaknesses and every citizen goes through challenges – those shouldn’t be belittled. “But to think that 50 percent of the population is going through those challenges is also ridiculous.” “Recognising women’s votes in decision-making is a step towards equality,” she said. “There are people who see women voting and running in the election as another step towards Westernization. They dislike seeing women in public-facing roles. But I don’t think they are in the majority. The majority is either neutral or accepting.”
A female voter, Najla Harir, said: “I exercised my electoral right. We are optimistic about a bright future for women in our homeland.” Hatoon al-Fassi, Saudi women rights activist and writer, said in a tweet: “This is a new day. The day of the Saudi woman!
People in Saudi Arabia are hoping this is a significant step on the path towards having a more inclusive society, not only for women but also for youth because the voting age has been reduced from 21 to 18. The vote is being seen as a landmark in the conservative kingdom. However, the councils have limited powers.
The nationwide election was a milestone —the first in which women were allowed to both vote and run for office. For the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia, women were allowed to vote and stand as candidates in municipal elections. Women in Saudi Arabia went to the polls for the first time on December 12 and it was a small gain for women’s rights in this staunchly Islamic (conservative) kingdom where Islam was born some 1400 years ago.
Limitations on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia make it the only country where women are not permitted to drive and western countries, seeking open culture in all respects for Arabs, want Saudi king to let women to shed their veils meant for protection from evils also drive, if possible drinking alcohol. They insist the Arabs must share western demoralized values.
Saudi Arabia differs from other modern Muslim countries in being the only state “to have been created by successfully fighting the enemies (jihad), the only one to claim the holy Quran as its constitution”, and one of only four Muslim countries “to have escaped European imperialism. Its Hejaz region and its cities Mecca and Medina are the cradle of Islam, the destination of the hajj pilgrimage, the two holiest sites of Islam.
Saudi Arabian dress strictly follows the principles of hijab (the Islamic principle of modesty, especially in dress). The predominantly loose and flowing, but covering, garments are suited to Saudi Arabia’s desert climate. Most women cover their head in respect for their religion.
Virtually all Saudi citizens are Muslim (officially – all), and almost all Saudi residents are Muslim Estimates of the Sunni population of Saudi Arabia are somewhere between 75–90%, with the remaining 10–25% being Shia Muslim The official and dominant form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia is commonly known as Wahhabism, (proponents prefer the name Salafism, considering Wahhabi derogatory and is often described as ‘puritanical’, ‘intolerant’, or ‘ultra-conservative’ by observers, and as “true” Islam by its adherents. It was founded in the Arabian Peninsula by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century.
According to estimates there are about 1.5 million Christian workers in Saudi Arabia. While a 2015 study estimates 60,000 Muslims converted to Christianity in Saudi Arabia. According to Pew Research Center there are 390,000 Hindu workers in Saudi Arabia came from India.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is an Arab state in Western Asia constituting the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia is a desert country encompassing most of the Arabian Peninsula, with Red Sea and Persian Gulf coastlines. Known as the birthplace of Islam, it is home to the religion’s 2 most sacred mosques: Masjid al-Haram, in Mecca, destination of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, and Medina’s Masjid an-Nabawi, burial site of the prophet Muhammad. Riyadh, the capital, is a skyscraper-filled metropolis.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 by Ibn Saud. He united the four regions into a single state through a series of conquests beginning in 1902 with the capture of Riyadh, the ancestral home of his family, the House of Saud. The country has since been an absolute monarchy, effectively a hereditary dictatorship governed along Islamic lines. TheWahhabism religious movement within Sunni Islam has been called “the predominant feature of Saudi culture”. Saudi Arabia known as “the Land of the Two Holy Mosques” in reference to Al-Masjid al-Haram (in Mecca), and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (inMedina), the two holiest places in Islam has a total population of 28.7 million, of which 20 million are Saudi nationals and 8 million are foreigners.
Saudi Arabia has an oil-based economy with strong government control over major economic activities. Saudi Arabia possesses 18% of the world’s proven petroleum reserves, ranks as the largest exporter of petroleum, and played a leading role in OPEC for many years. The petroleum sector accounts for almost all of Saudi government revenues and export earnings. Most workers, particularly in the private sector, are foreigners.
Saudi oil reserves are the second largest in the world, and Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading oil exporter and second largest producer. Proven reserves, according to figures provided by the Saudi government, are estimated to be 260 billion barrels (41 km3), about one-quarter of world oil reserves. Petroleum in Saudi Arabia is not only plentiful but under pressure and close to the earth’s surface. This makes it far cheaper and thus far more profitable to extract than oil at many other fields The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 92.5% of Saudi budget revenues, 90% of export earnings, and 55% of GDP.
Another 40% of GDP comes from the private sector. An estimated 7.5 (2013) million foreigners work legally in Saudi Arabia,playing a crucial role in the Saudi economy, for example, in the oil and service sectors. The government has encouraged private sector growth for many years to lessen the kingdom’s dependence on oil, and to increase employment opportunities for the swelling Saudi population. In recent decades the government has begun to permit private sector and foreign investor participation in sectors such as power generation and telecom, and acceded to the WTO. During much of the 2000s, high oil prices enabled the government to post budget surpluses, boost spending on job training and education, infrastructure development, and government salaries. More than 95% of all Saudi oil is produced on behalf of the Saudi Government by the parastatal giant Saudi Aramco, and the remaining 5% by similar parastatal companies as of 2002. In 2000, 100% foreign-owned businesses were allowed in the kingdom.
The government has sought to allocate its petroleum income to transform its relatively undeveloped, oil-based economy into that of a modern industrial state while maintaining the kingdom’s traditional Islamic values and customs. Although economic planners have not achieved all their goals, the economy has progressed rapidly. Oil wealth has increased the standard of living of most Saudis.
Petroleum was discovered in 1938 and Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer and exporter, controlling the world’s second largest oil reserves. The kingdom is categorized as a World Bank high-income economy with a high Human Development Index and is the only Arab country to be part of the G-20 major economies. However, the economy of Saudi Arabia is the least diversified in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Education in the kingdom is free at all levels. A large part of the curriculum at all levels is devoted to Islam, and, at the secondary level, students are able to follow either a religious or a technical track. The rate of literacy is 90.4% among males and is about 81.3% among females. Higher education has expanded rapidly, with large numbers of Universities and colleges being founded particularly since 2000. Institutions of higher education include the country’s first university, King Saud University founded in 1957, the Islamic University at Medina founded in 1961, and the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah founded in 1967. Other colleges and universities emphasize curricula in sciences and technology, military studies, religion, and medicine. Institutes devoted to Islamic studies, in particular, abound. Women typically receive college instruction in segregated institutions
Saudi Arabia has the fourth highest military expenditure in the world, and in 2010–14, SIPRI found that Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest arms importer. Saudi Arabia is considered a regional and middle power. In addition to the GCC, it is an active member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and OPEC.
Even as Saudi kingdom moves towards civic freedoms in adopting gradual electoral reforms, there are some problems the nation is facing. Estimates of the number of Saudis below the poverty line range from between 12.7% and 25%. Press reports and private estimates as of 2013 “suggest that between 2 million and 4 million” of the country’s native Saudis live on “less than about $530 a month” – about $17 a day – considered the poverty line in Saudi Arabia. In contrast, Forbes magazine estimates King Abdullah’s personal fortune at $18 billion.
Saudi society’s objective of being a religious Islamic country, coupled with economic difficulties, has created a number of issues and tensions. A rare independent opinion poll published in 2010 indicated that Saudis’ main social concerns were unemployment (at 10% in 2010) and corruption, a serious crime followed even in Islamic world.
Juvenile delinquency in practices such as Tafheet (illegal racing), drug-use and excessive use of alcohol are getting worse. High unemployment and a generation of young males filled with contempt toward the Royal Family is a significant threat to Saudi social stability. Some Saudis feel they are entitled to well-paid government jobs, and the failure of the government to satisfy this sense of entitlement has led to considerable dissatisfaction.
Saudi Arabia has announced plans to invest about $46 billion in three of the world’s largest and most ambitious petrochemical projects. These include the $27 billion Ras Tanura integrated refinery and petrochemical project, the $9 billion Saudi Kayan at the Wayback Machine, petrochemical complex at Jubail Industrial City, and the $10 billion Petro Rabigh refinery upgrade project.
Together, the three projects will employ more than 150,000 technicians and engineers working around the clock.Upon completion in 2015–16, the Ras Tanura integrated refinery and petrochemicals project will become the world’s largest petrochemical facility of its kind with a combined production capacity of 11 million tons per year of different petrochemical and chemical products. The products will include ethylene, propylene, aromatics, polyethylene, ethylene oxide, chlorine derivatives, and glycol.
Saudi Arabia had plans to launch six “economic cities” (e.g. King Abdullah Economic City, to be completed by 2020, in an effort to diversify the economy and provide jobs.
It is not enough women are given the right to vote, elect and get elected; they should be empowered in Islamic way in order to uphold and strengthen Islamic values. Women’s role in this sphere is critical.