Saudi Arabia: Women’s Rights Body in Pipeline

Arab News
Women’s rights activists in the Kingdom are eagerly anticipating the establishment of Ansar Al-Marah — the first civil society dedicated to supporting women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
Suliman Al-Salman, founder of Ansar Al-Marah, told Arab News that the society aims to create institutional and individual change that would improve the lives of women in the Kingdom.
“After two years of negotiations with the Ministry of Social Affairs, a request to establish Ansar Al-Marah has been initially approved,” said Al-Salman, adding that the Shoura Council’s recent approval of the establishment of a National Authority for Civil Society Organizations would speed up the process of obtaining a license for the society to operate.

Ansar Al-Marah comprises 21 men and women from both the Shiite and Sunni communities. Members include researchers, academics, educators and activists.

The body aims to increase awareness of women’s right by facilitating ongoing debates on fundamental and provocative women issues; and help women improve their social, educational and cultural levels by conducting studies and research.

Al-Salman said that the society would act as an intermediate body between women and officials. He also denied that there has been a historical bias against women in Saudi Arabia.

“Looking back to the 60s and 70s women were moving toward the right direction; they started to take higher educations and play a part in the social development,” he said.

Speaking about the current situation of women, Al-Salman said, “The majority of women today are under the dominance of men. They can’t be active members of society because of restrictions over their ability to leave home and arrange transport, and their being unable to get the simplest things unless they go through men.”

Al-Salman said that the current women’s assemblies in the Kingdom tend to function under the framework of humanitarian relief. “Women’s issues are complicated. This requires the establishment of several independent societies to serve women,” said Al-Salman, who is from Al-Qassim.

The idea for Ansar Al-Marah came up after Al-Salman failed to be elected in the municipal election of 2005. As part of his election manifesto, Al-Salman advocated to support women’s rights. “I decided to continue defending women’s right through other approaches especially after having a full support from activists,” he said.

Regarding the criticism of some people who may feel that the society aims to Westernize Saudi Arabia, Al-Salman said, “Helping women to get their rights, which are ignored or suppressed by law or customs doesn’t conflict with Islam, which does not prevent women from utilizing their own money, driving or choosing their own husbands.”

He added, “Both activists and religious people are fighting extremism and are willing to exert efforts for the best of our country.”

By: Najah Alosaimi

28 January 2008