Activists praise Mosques Authority for appointing women to senior positions but cite women campaigners languishing in jail
Ten women in Saudi Arabia have been appointed to high-level positions at Islam’s two holiest sites – while five others remain jailed for activism on behalf of women’s rights.
The appointments include senior posts at the King Abdul Aziz Complex for Holy Kaaba Kiswa in Mecca, the location of the most sacred shrine in Islam, as well as at the site’s gallery and library.
Dr. Abdulrahman bin Abdulaziz al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and president of the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina, announced the appointments.
Representatives from the institution credit this development to a series of reforms that are part of the Vision 2030 program of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, more commonly known as MbS. The program includes a series of changes aimed at women’s advancement.
However, rights groups say that while the appointments are positive steps, they are only cosmetic changes designed to make the kingdom more palatable for businesses relationships with outside companies.
“It is an important reform that they’re trying to include women in the governing processes of these mosques,” Suad Abu-Dayyeh, an Amman-based Middle East/North Africa consultant for Equality Now, a women’s and girls’ rights organization, told The Media Line.
“But the problem is,” she continued, “that genuine reform will not occur in Saudi Arabia unless the kingdom releases five women who have been campaigning for years toward ending the guardianship [rule] and [for] enhancing the status of women in Saudi Arabia.”
Abu-Dayyeh is referring to Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, Nouf Abdelaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani, who remain in custody after their 2018 arrest on charges of advocating for women’s rights.
They are part of a 13-member cohort that advocated for women’s rights issues, including the right to drive, which is now legal. The eight others have been released and await trial.
Sadah, one of the activists who remains jailed, is a personal friend of Abu-Dayyeh.
“She is still in prison and we don’t know anything about her,” Abu-Dayyaeh said. “We don’t know if she was [already put] on trial or if she [is] in a cell alone or with others. There is no news about women in prison now.”
According to Amnesty International, female prisoners in the Saudi correctional system are often subject to sexual harassment and torture.
“We feel that some of the reforms [under Vision 2030] are not really sincere, as MbS is just trying to please the international community,” Abu-Dayyeh says, saying proof lies in the fact that the five women remain confined.
Equality Now, part of a coalition of international organizations and rights groups, has been working to persuade governments and companies that Saudi reforms are very shallow.
“We are contacting businesses and countries now to boycott the G20 summit meeting, scheduled to be held in November 2020 in Saudi Arabia. We are trying to find any [platform] to make people aware that Saudi Arabia is not what they think it is,” she stated.
“In any government, if you want to appreciate what women have done, you put them in high-level positions [while not] putting them in prison for advocating the end of the male guardianship [rule],” she continued, noting, for example, that women still cannot pass their nationality along to their children.
Under Saudi Arabia’s legal system, guardianship is invested in male relatives, such as a father or husband, who is responsible for making key decisions for a female. This includes whom she can marry, what she can study and whether or not she can undergo a medical procedure.
Abu-Dayyeh reports that the coronavirus pandemic has delayed justice even more for the imprisoned women.
“COVID-19 has really impacted their situation… as the government has put a hold on trials and they are languishing,” she said. “The kingdom has been releasing prisoners for lesser crimes, but these women are still in prison.”
Yet not all Saudi women believe the reforms being implemented under Vision 2030 are insufficient.
Aida al-Otaibi, a Jeddah-based businesswoman, is happy with MbS’s plan.
“We feel liberated and empowered. Certainly, this confidence will assist us to grow professionally and personally,” she told The Media Line.
“As a community in general, we are very progressive and liberal,” she added. “Not all [male] heads of families restrict women.”