Bessma Momani is an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, and author of Arab Dawn: Arab Youth and the Demographic Dividend They Will Bring.
The municipal elections in Saudi Arabia last week saw the first participation of women as both candidates and electorates for the first time in its history. In a country that has the most draconian laws and rules about women in public life, from the well-known ban on women driving to the official segregation of the sexes in all public life, Saudi Arabia is an unlikely place to think of as reforming. But it is
Saudi municipal elections started a decade ago and twice excluded women from participating. The Saudi suffragist movement started then, as women took collective action from their living rooms and then in print media calling for their right to vote and demanding participation in Saudi's only democratically elected political institution. A decade ago, Saudi suffragists were only a few women, often from political and intellectual elite who articulately championed their cause for women's rights in the kingdom, by using Islamic scripture to argue why they had the right to vote and stand in elections.
Today, Saudi suffragists are surrounded by legions of vibrant, young, interconnected and highly educated women – most with degrees from Western universities – who demand their voices be heard, because they are citizens with rights to political participation.
Since the first municipal elections were called, tens of thousands of Saudi women have taken the opportunity to go to the West and obtain a university degree that has been completely paid for by the Saudi government, in addition to their living allowance. Women from around the kingdom, some who were from disadvantaged families, started to take advantage of what is known as the King Abdullah Scholarship Program and get their university degrees from top schools in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Nearly 90,000 Saudi students are admitted into the U.S. alone, every year, and 20,000 in Canada, every year – a program that started in 2005 and is funded through to 2020. The program boasts that 50 per cent of the scholarship recipients have been women for the past few years. Nearly all have and continue to return to Saudi Arabia and they are returning home with more than Western degrees; they are also returning with ideas on how to improve their country from the bottom up.
When I met with young Saudis students in Canada and the United States, I asked them, "What Western ideas would you take home to Saudi?" To my surprise, multiculturalism, respect for minorities and recycling programs were among the top favourite Western principles.
Many young Saudi women said to me they would also fight for women's rights in Saudi, till they have equal participation in every facet of public life, including the right to drive. Many women and men are paying a price for their civil disobedience, but today there are Western-educated youth who are the lawyers, professors, doctors, engineers and mothers of their society that are, make no mistake, fighting for their rights.
No surprise to me then, that in this round of municipal elections, nearly 1,000 women participated alongside 6,000 men for 2,100 municipal council seats. With enormous constraints on female candidates, like barring them from showing their face to male voters and the obvious challenge of not being able to drive to campaign in one's own municipality, the electoral success of 20 women is still uncomfortably low.
Reform in Saudi Arabia, nevertheless, is coming from the bottom-up pressure of young people who want social and cultural changes that keep up with modern times. We ought to stop discounting their determination and potential impact to bring change to this conservative kingdom.
There is a movement of Saudi suffragists who want more than cosmetic changes. They understand that municipal councils are a limited form of political power. Saudi Arabia will not become Sweden and share its outlook on women's rights any time soon, but if Saudi can become like the United Arab Emirates or even Qatar, that would be a welcomed sea change for Saudi women and its youth who want so much change in their kingdom. Let's applaud Saudi suffragettes and continue to keep Canada's doors open to these future Agnes Macphails and Nellie McClungs.