x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A step forward, another back for my Saudi female friends

Saudi women have received an opportunity - and there can be no doubt that they will take advantage of the chance, even against fierce conservative resistance.

A doctor, a housewife with a high-school diploma and a journalist: these are the professions of three very different women who don't have much in common. Except that they are all Saudi. And they have all made up their minds to run as candidates, with or without the blessing of the men in their lives.

Along with the rest of the world, these ladies watched and re-watched King Abdullah's speech on Sunday, in which he announced that Saudi women would have the right to vote, the right to run in municipal elections and even the right to take a place at the Majlis Al Shura.

"We want to make a point to the men that we are here and we will compete against them for a seat wherever one is available," said my outspoken surgeon friend. She says she already has had a lot of practice; she competes against men and faces obstacles almost on a daily basis in her work. When her medical opinions get overruled by male colleagues, she fights back. That is the kind of person she is and has been since childhood.

For instance, when she decided to become a doctor in the 1990s she knew it would come at a price, including difficulty in finding a partner. Female professionals are generally considered less desirable, which is true not in just Saudi Arabia.

And yet women continue to defy the stereotypes. That is why many say they are ready to serve in a shura, knowing full well that it will take an immense amount of courage to sit across from male members (who are often ultra-conservative sheikhs) and argue over decisions. I would love to be there to watch one of the men pick a fight with my surgeon friend, who is also a specialist in cancer, and has the patience of a saint.

The journalist and housewife both want changes to the way the municipal services are run, especially given their experiences in dealing with floods and everyday challenges of a city's backbone left in neglect.

The housewife even has a slogan ready: "Streets clean of holes and garbage, community parks for my children ... and family to be safe in time of emergencies."

She has witnessed the two major floods in the past two years in Jeddah, where she had to carry her two children to higher ground. She told me how she saw other mothers drowning in their abayas and dropping their children into the dirty water while their men ran off for their own safety. With this image burned into her memory, she says she is determined to be the "mother's voice" at whatever seat of power she can get. Being a member of one of the most influential families in Saudi, I think she has a good chance in the municipal elections four years from now.

And yet, my journalist friend and I have a more cynical view of things.

When news broke on Tuesday that Shaima Ghassaniya will be lashed 10 times for driving without the government's permission, we couldn't help but call it "revenge of the men."

This verdict is the first of its kind in Saudi, and comes as a great shock given that other women were detained for several days but eventually set free without punishment

Taken together it's hard not to see these two events as symbolic of the struggle between reformists and conservatives in Saudi society.

I recall what I had to do just for an interview with one of the top sheikhs and morality police figures in Saudi Arabia. I was covered, stood behind a door and "thickened" my voice upon his request, just for a few sentences for a story on which I was working. The fact I even got to talk to him was surprising enough, but it is a good example of what women will have to face when they talk to these men.

Progress will take time, but that is exactly why the king made the announcement now - to give it time to develop properly. Having lived in the kingdom for most of my life, I have seen what sudden changes do, and how reforms don't succeeded unless introduced gradually and from within.

I have complete faith in my friends and the women of Saudi Arabia, and I know that eventually they will excel more because of what they went through to get to that one seat.