Arab Spring has yet to reach women

Jean Carrere points out the continuing absence of gender equality despite Saudi Arabia’s decision to grant women the vote

The expression “Arab Spring” has appeared in an astonishing number of headlines over the past eight months to describe the turmoil that characterized the Middle East and the broader Arab world since the uprising in Tunisia last December. But this expression, so popular among Western observers, can easily be regarded as flawed. Foreign analysts seem to enjoy the lyrical undertone it implies, and its images of a newer, brighter Arab world rising from the ashes of authoritarianism.

When King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced on 25 September that the right to vote was to be granted to women of the Kingdom, the decision was met with universal acclaim and attributed to the Arab Spring. Women will be able to vote in the next municipal elections in 2015. He also announced that women would have the right to be appointed to the Majlis-ash-Shura, the formal advisory body of Saudi Arabia.

“Shaimaa Ghassaneya was sentenced to ten lashes for violating the driving ban”

But this decision is simply another political stunt from the monarch. Consider his speech, given at the opening of a new term for the Shura: “Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulama [clerics] and others … to involve women in the Shura Concil as members, starting from the next term”.

The use of the first-person, the emphatic tone, the apparent unity with religious authorities point to the demagogic aspects of a decision that is nothing more than another blow at the conservatives. This is not a great victory for women’s rights brought about by the Arab Spring.

In this permanent struggle between the modernist King and the radical forces deeply rooted in the country, all means are welcome to weaken the credibility of the other side, including media stunts. Members of the Shura are all nominated directly by the King, and its function is purely consultative. Women taking seats in the Shura will ultimately have only two consequences: the weakening of radical positions, and less attention to the feminist movement in Saudi Arabia, which has to be the first country in the world where women gain political rights before being allowed to drive a car, travel, or choose their own clothes.

Only two days after this announcement, Shaimaa Ghassaneya was sentenced to ten lashes for violating the driving ban. Given the current international climate and the media attention following his statement, the King commuted the sentence.

While the West sits around thinking of new poetic metaphors to associate with the Arab revolutions, the local populations fear a silent takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the start of a new civil war in Libya, and the prevalence of the oppressive regime in Syria. Each country has to face its own internal issues and challenges.

“The local populations fear a silent takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood”

The regional context is favourable to an emancipation of individual liberties and to gender equality. In a context of political tensions, women are instrumentalized, whether it is to weaken political opposition or to highlight the egalitarian features of a system.

Arab feminism should gain from this situation by careful negotiation with all sides, rather than celebrating factitious victories.