Beyond the Burka

by Lisa De Bode

Saudi women will be allowed to vote in the country’s next municipal elections, King Abdullah declared in a historic speech in September. The King also promised women equal representation in the Shura Council, a parliamentary body which until recently included only men.

Women’s struggle for civil rights peaked during the past decade in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom witnessed the rise of its first generation of businesswomen, sent thousands of female students abroad to study at top schools, and its first female — and burka-clad — deputy minister of education boldly worked her way to the top.

The 9/11 attacks were among the direct instigators of these reforms, marking the beginning of an era of religious disillusionment. A fire in a girls’ school in Mecca in 2002 from which improperly dressed girls were not allowed to escape, along with Muslim casualties caused by al-Qaeda attacks on Western compounds in Riyadh, also contributed to the phenomenon. These events initiated a decade of unprecedented introspection that is giving way to reformations of the local Islamic faith, opening women’s eyes to religious extremism’s acute consequences. This Islamic-feminist discourse supported a quiet revolution behind the veils of Riyadh—an advent Abdullah has now granted official recognition.

While Abdullah’s speech may seem too little too late by Western standards, it was received by Saudi women as a giant leap forward, recognizing calls for a fundamental advancement women have awaited since his 2005 ascension to power.

Saudi women were never as concerned with the burka or veil, tangible symbols of Islamic tradition  often demonized by Western European policymakers. Saudi women instead occupied themselves fighting more meaningful battles – for economic participation, social legislation, and political representation. The abaya and burka are part of their culture, matters of pride and self-protection, they tell me. And they condemn Western attempts to meddle with local customs. Instead, voting rights and political representation are the real keys to reformation. Despite the Kingdom’s reputation for intransigence in implementing progressive laws, we now know women will be able to vote in the next election. Wearing their burkas, they will feel more comfortable to go out and do so.

“Islam does not marginalize women,” said the monarch during his speech, in daring contradiction of the Wahhabi ideology dominating his country. The king’s decision to allow women to vote was not solely inspired by religious scruples; it was equally motivated by the kingdom’s dire economic needs.  In my research, I found that executives at companies such as Saudi Aramco increasingly regard their female employees as more productive than their male counterparts. The reforms sparked a desire for greater financial independence among Saudi women, who are now generally better educated than their male colleagues and average ten years of workforce experience. Female participation in the workforce tripled since the nineties, which paved the way for policymakers to legalize mixed-gender work environments.

International pressure does matter – when it touches on the right issues. In May, widespread world press coverage helped boost the profile of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia when Saudi woman Manal Al-Sharif called for a national driving campaign and was arrested. Saudi Arabia is still the only country in the world where women can’t drive. Prince Nayef’s election as the new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia after the death of his brother, Prince Sultan, is likely to keep it that way. His authorities recently sentenced a Saudi woman to ten lashes for breaking the driving ban. But the international press campaign on this issue helped ramp up pressure on the King for reform.

It’s true that the abaya and burka are still not matters of choice for Saudi women. While they shun international criticism of their dress code, reforming it will become more important once other more basic conditions are met. Economic, social and political rights provide security, belonging, and participation in the future of the country. Jeans and miniskirts offer something else. Today’s Egyptian women parade in bikinis on the beach alongside their friends dressed in black.  These freedoms are invaluable, but prioritizing them above others in Saudi Arabia is misguided.

About the Author

Lisa De Bode is a writer and journalist focusing on Islam and the West. Her research resulted in the publication of The Quiet Revolution, a work of narrative nonfiction discussing the impact of 9/11 on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She graduated with a MS in Economics from the University of Leuven and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy at the Fletcher School.

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