"Exhibiting You" - Story

Saudi Arabia: Women Without the Vote

September Podcast Features Rasha Hifzi

Submitted: 08/26/2008

When it comes to women's rights, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is often held up as the worst-case scenario. Images of women in long, black abayas, which reveal only their eyes, are often juxtaposed with tales of restrictions.

Women aren't allowed to be in a room alone with a man who isn't their father, husband or brother. Women are not allowed to drive, although Saudi officials have hinted recently that such a ban could be lifted, in large part because women are playing increasing roles in the workforce. Still, only about one in twenty Saudi women work outside the home.

The picture isn't all bleak, though. Saudi women own nearly 70 percent of bank accounts and 20 percent of private companies in the Kingdom.

Women, Power and Politics curator Masum Momaya asked Rasha Hifzi to fill us in on the general status of women in Saudi Arabia today.

Rasha Hifzi responds, "I'm really happy that you ask this question because I think the Western world has a stereotypical image about women in Saudi Arabia. Actually, now if you go anywhere in Saudi Arabia, any company, any organization you will find women everywhere. Of course it took them time to have woman in these positions because this needs mobilization, it needs training, it needs education."

Saudi women do not have the official right to vote yet. What is being done to change that?

We're working to lobby for women to participate in the elections. But the most important thing, if we want the government to help us in letting women participate in the elections, we need to have the demand from the civic society and from the women themselves because if they are careless and they don't believe in elections, nobody will vote, we'll have no candidates.

Can you tell us about your interest in getting women involved in civic and political participation?

We're trying to spread awareness about the importance of elections and voting. Hopefully we'll have the municipality elections in couple more years and we want women to be enthusiastic about this. Even if there was no chance for us to have candidates, at least we have to have the right to elect people. And to have this right, we need to educate women and spread awareness about the importance of elections because it will help us to implement all the laws, all the procedures, all the projects in our province and region.

Do most women want to participate and have a voice? Or is that something that still needs to be fostered in this society?

I think we have a long way to go because we have a lack of awareness about this. If you want women to have more seats in the municipality, to present women's issues, to present family issues, we need to have the demand. Demand will come if you spread education and awareness about the importance of elections and about how to proceed, how to set programs, how to evaluate the program and follow up with the consequences of these elections.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

I hope people will come to Saudi Arabia, conduct research about Saudi women, and see things in real life, because some people are blaming the Western society, some people are blaming Saudi Arabia or the Arab society, some people are blaming the media, but a lot of key elements are affecting our image in the Western society.

Saudi Arabia is not about terrorism. Saudi Arabia is not about oil, only. Saudi Arabia is a very rich country with cultures and ideologies and I really, really hope that more organizations, more people, would come and see what it is really like there.

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