Published — Monday 4 March 2013
Last update 4 March 2013 1:58 am
AS MIGHT be typical of a society in transition, there are several glaring contradictions that are currently part of our social setting in Saudi Arabia. These seem striking and illogical when we look at them up close. Taking the long view, of course, it is not so surprising that these contradictions exist. On the other hand, it is important that we avoid getting stuck in this position.
As of this year, women have been appointed to the Shoura Council, which had always been in the past an all-male group.
Moreover, a measure has been taken to ensure women’s continued participation in the Shoura, guaranteeing the perpetuation of their input.
The role of the Shoura is to review policy and offer advice to the king on key matters. Now that women have an established role and a guaranteed voice within the Shoura, they will surely use that agency to speak out on a variety of matters, and not limited to issues directly affecting women.
However, it is to be expected that they will also pay attention to the questions that are most pertinent to their own wellbeing — things like divorce laws, minimum age for marriage and other key issues pertaining to women and girls.
However, this progressive and pro-active measure contrasts with several other social realities in Saudi today — like the fact that women still aren’t allowed to drive, and that they require a male guardian’s consent to travel. Taken in conjunction with the fact that many Saudi women today are highly educated and qualified to hold professional roles, it all amounts to a disturbing ambiguity about women’s real role in our society. These contradictions are not merely quaint and harmless — rather, they are of a sort that will undoubtedly continue to produce tension until resolved.
The concept of “social agency” is useful in understanding these issues. A social agent is one who can act independently in society and to have an effect on the community. Generally, the only individuals who do not have social agency are children. Through their growing professional and political roles, Saudi women are clearly gaining a powerful degree of social agency.
This is what makes the fact that they are still lacking in small, basic freedoms not only contradictory, but ultimately impractical. It’s simply not sustainable to grant social agency in certain key aspects, and deny it in other, quite trivial matters.
To do so can do nothing but cause continuous dissatisfaction and conflict. It grows more and more incongruous that women still don’t have the means to independently transport themselves from one place to another throughout most of Saudi — except, of course, in certain zones- another contradiction!
These contradictions are nothing but the growing pains of a society in transition. Just as it’s useless to lay blame for the fact that they currently exist, it is equally useless to perpetuate them.
We must recognize the transitional period we are in, and then move bravely on.