While CIPE is currently holding its conference Democracy That Delivers for Women, the hurdles women face in the Middle East and beyond remain staggeringly high.
After a bright picture of Arab women leading many demonstrations in the Arab spring and protesting shoulder to shoulder with men for democracy, justice and accountability, their case remains controversial in light of prevailing notions of the roles of men and women in Arab countries.
Yet in countries like Saudi Arabia, where the wind of change wasn’t excepted to blow, Saudi women have mounted a campaign against the unwritten but heavily enforced ban on Saudi women driving.
The recent campaign gained traction when a 32-year old Saudi woman was imprisoned for defying this unwritten law. Shortly after, thousands of messages and tweets were fired off in solidarity with Manal Elasharif on Saudi Arabia’s virtual –and only – venue of free expression, the world wide web. Although Amnesty International announced that Manal had been released, it was only on condition that she remove herself from the ongoing campaign for women to drive cars.
Despite the fact that economic empowerment has been considered a backbone for women’s empowerment, wealthy women in Saudi Arabia– whose wealth depends on natural resources and other rents -have displayed little inclination to seek democracy as a fundamental step towards gender equality and justice.
Due to the wide variety in the nature of regime structure, socioeconomic factors, and ethnic and religious cleavages, it is not yet clear in what direction the winds of change sweeping the region will continue to blow. Yet in the case of Saudi Arabia, there was at least one early indicator that the country’s women are ready to begin reversing the ingrained discrimination which dictate what society permits them to do.
In Kuwait in 2009 women achieved a historic milestone by winning their first seats in parliament. Their victory had a great influence on Saudi women, who share many cultural norms and dreams of greater opportunities. While Saudi women may not be close to winning seats in parliament, they are at least close to taking their seats behind the steering wheel.