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by Riyadh & Dammam (Saudi Arabia), special correspondent.

The Slow Emancipation of Saudi Women

Translated Sunday 28 February 2016, by Arwen Dewey

Over the past 10 years, partly due to the economic downturn, the Saudi Wahhabi regime has been obliged to reconsider women’s rights. Saudi women are taking advantage of every concession.

“Woman stops running car as driver has heart attack!” In any other country in the world, information like this would probably be relegated to the back of the paper. But when it is published on the front page of the Saudi daily Arab News, one of the most widely read papers in the Wahhabi kingdom, the words take on new meaning. The article, published on the 19th of December 2015, is far from innocuous. It appeared one week after the municipal elections, at which women had the right to vote and to present themselves as candidates for the first time in the history of the Saudi monarchy. To everyone’s surprise, twenty-two of the 900 women who presented themselves as candidates were actually elected. "Now the question is, what is the real significance of this kind of news?" asks Elham Al Hasanain, seated on a plush sofa in the lounge of an upper-class hotel in central Riyadh. "Personally, I suspect that the powers that be are preparing the public for the fact that women will soon be allowed to drive." Al Hasanain is a member of Majilis al-Shura, the assembly’s advisory council. She joined the assembly in 2013 by order of King Abdallah, another first (there are a total of 30 women, out of 150 representatives). For the past few months, this deputy of the land of Mecca has been trying, along with her colleague in Riyadh, Hoda Al Helassi (see adjoining interview), to win for women this same right to drive. " It’s a question of great economic importance for the country," she explains, as a half-dozen of her colleagues join her in the lounge where a Lebanese journalist is waiting to interview them.

At the beginning of the 2000s, the typical Saudi couple still lived on what the husband earned, which was enough to cover their needs. Their parents, benefitting from State-funded annuities and distributions, would often give them a little extra as well. But at the end of the 1990s, the economic crisis that hit the kingdom deeply shook the traditional annuity system. Oil revenues couldn’t keep up with the population boom. Between 1990 and 2005, the yearly population growth was twice as high as the average growth of the GDP. “But between 2006 and 2008, the imbalance between the population growth and the that of the GDP was reversed," writes Olivier Arvisais, Québécois researcher and specialist on the Middle East, in 2010. According to Fatiha Dazi-Héni, research fellow at The Strategic-Research Institute of the French Military Academy (Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l’Ecole Militaire – IRSEM), it may be 20 more years before the kingdom manages to satisfy employment demand. She estimates that every year 200,000 young Saudis are prepared to enter the job market, while the market itself can absorb only about 30% of them. At the same time, young men accustomed to benefitting from annuities are refusing certain jobs that are considered demeaning and that are usually given to foreign workers. At the beginning of the 21st century, Saudization caused employers to look instead to women, who are more willing to accept such jobs.

During his reign (2005-2015), Abdallah made several important decisions that improved women’s access to jobs. As soon as he took the throne, hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in university scholarships. Around 40,000 young Saudi women joined the student bodies of the best Western universities. Ten years later, the country boasted more women with college degrees than men. But these new engineers, doctors, architects and lawyers had little desire to return to a country where their freedom would be limited. "If we want a positive return on investment, we need to give new rights to these young women," Al Hasanain concludes before joining the journalist and her colleagues, who have disappeared behind a velvet curtain to the next room.

Saudi women’s fight is far from over, and its battles aren’t without consequences.

These social transformations do have consequences, and will cause problems for the several million Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Indians currently employed as chauffeurs for women. Whether these men work full-time or only as occasional Uber drivers, their futures and those of the country’s women are linked. To make matters worse, Wahhabi capitalism as practiced by the Saudi monarchy tends to promote a very cynical sort of logic: sacrifice second-tier foreign workers in order to benefit women, who used to be seen only as sub-members of society. King Abdallah first took steps in this direction three years ago, deporting 4 million foreigners to their respective countries. Laborers were among those deported, but department store employees were more particularly targeted. This gave middle-class women access to jobs in the hundreds of shopping malls that fill the country’s larger cities.

But Saudi women’s fight is far from over, and its battles aren’t without consequences. For the past 16 years, in a chic little apartment in downtown Riyadh, psychotherapist Madeha Al Ajrouh has been open for business every day. She helps her patients work through the evils of Saudi society in these changing times. "My situation is fairly unique," relates the 50-year-old photography buff. “Not only am I openly feminist, I work in an unusual profession that is not encouraged by the State." In the 1990s, she was one of the first women who dared to drive right under the noses of the religious police, and she is a privileged witness of the authoritarian society that controls the kingdom. Multiple personality disorder and countless depressions are the main symptoms coming out of the family framework. "Women are the victims of many kinds of domestic abuse, and the weight of being under guardianship sometimes becomes too much to bear," Al Ajrouh continues. "But the men I see are also victims of the society that they control. Some suffer terribly because their sisters and daughters aren’t able to do what they want to do. In a patriarchal society, men aren’t allowed to criticize. That option systematically leads to prison. When a woman fights for her own freedom, it’s more or less accepted. But if a man joins the fight, other men see it as an act of treason.

However, according to Al Ajrouh, women’s issues have changed over the past 10 years, and the number of cases of clinical schizophrenia has actually gone down. "Cases of multiple personality disorder were caused by the complete isolation in which women were living." Today, the needs of her patients (mostly young women between 25 and 35 years old) have changed. This is due to a combination of two main factors. The first is better access to employment.

"Most of the inmates that fill our jails are very young."

The second is access to the Internet and to social media, which has allowed them more freedom of speech. "But the issue of class is still a problem,” adds the therapist. "The women I see are usually members of the upper class. They work, and they pay for their sessions themselves. It’s very difficult for middle class and working class women to get an education. They seldom have degrees, they aren’t able to look for work and they don’t have many ways to support themselves." There is also a gulf between urban women and those who live in the country or in smaller provincial towns. Millions of women have to get by with only a partial education, which lowers them to the level of lifelong children, if not slaves. “The guardianship system is truly a prison," continues the psychotherapist. "A woman has to be backed up by a man in order to make any decisions, from signing a work contract to buying an expensive item to being allowed to travel outside of the country. This gives rise to a deep-rooted feeling of hatred in women who don’t have a built-in pressure valve."

Clinical psychologist Faozia Al Hajj[ The name has been changed to respect the subject’s request for anonymity.] confirms this reality. She has been working for the past three years in one of the country’s main women’s prisons, on the outskirts of the eastern governorate of Al-Qatif. In a cafe near the Dammam airport, the young woman describes a typical day at work. "Most of the inmates that fill our jails are very young. 70% are there for minor crimes," explains Al Hajj, "usually for pregnancy outside of wedlock.” In those cases, the administration asks them if they want to keep the baby. Once the baby is born, they are freed. The other 30% are there for blood crimes. "Since the beginning of December, I’ve been in charge of four sisters that killed their brother when they were between 12 and 23 years old,” she says. “The oldest tells us that they killed their brother because their father ignored them, devoting all his time to his only son. They wanted to make their father suffer,” Al Hajj concludes. "This crime, like so many others in the same vein, is a symbolic assassination of patriarchal society."

(1) The name has been changed to respect the subject’s request for anonymity.

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