Saudi Arabian UI students: women's rights a step forward


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Sitting alone in the Old Capitol Town Center, Huda Alaithan enjoys an independence she says she wouldn't have in her home country, Saudi Arabia.

There, she said, men must escort women many places.

"It's not like just one situation," the UIstudent said. "It's the whole life. [In Saudi Arabia] I can't do anything alone."

Last month's proclamation by Saudi King Abdullah, announcing Saudi women's eligibility to participate and vote in municipal elections and become members of the Shura Council in 2015 was exciting for many Saudis, including Alaithan.

"It is a huge deal to Saudi women because it started with school, work then businesses," she said. "They succeeded in everything except driving."

Alaithan moved to Saudi Arabia when she was 7, returning to the U.S. at age 18 to go to school. Growing up, her parents always encouraged her to never limit her aspirations.

"I'm studying here because I have dreams," she said. "In order to succeed in the dreams I need to have rights, just as the men have rights."

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia has been a topic of much debate in recent years.

Ali Asani, a Harvard University professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and cultures, said the situation is peculiar to the Saudi context.

"Saudi Arabia lags way behind most Muslim countries in terms of affording rights to women," he said. "There is nothing theological about this, because women can vote in more than 50 other countries."

Asani said the country moves fast socially — with skyscrapers and technology — it remains reluctant to match that pace culturally.

The change wouldn't take effect immediately, he said, because of the social and patriarchal ties that are woven into the country's history.

"The whole thing comes out to look like it's about religion," he said. "[But] religion is tied to social, political, and cultural norms.

Another UI Saudi student, Mortada Al Janoubi, said he and his wife look forward to their return to the changed environment.

The pre-medicine student said his wife was elated when she told him the good news.

"Everybody, all the women — most of them are happy," Al Janoubi said, noting that even though the progress will be slow, it's a positive change.

But not all Arabs agree.

Palestinian-American Ghassan Harb said he sees the change as "sort of a cop out".

"I think it sounded great at first," the third-year UI law student said. "I don't think it is empowering women the way it should be. I think the law is not as exciting and provoking as it should be."

For women to vote, they still must get permission from a male relative, he said.

But Harb admits it is a small step in the right direction.

"Saudi Arabia is a very interesting country because it's a very modern country, but it's holding on to its religious history," he said. "They try to find the balance between the two, but I believe the monarchy needs to go to further lengths to protect the interests of women and their minorities."

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