On a quiet Saturday morning, while browsing the web for the day’s news, a story from Saudi Arabia caught my attention: thousands of female university students at the King Khalid University in the southern city of Abha were reported protesting against against poor on-campus sanitary services. According to Emirati newspaper Al Bayan, one of the students said: “The University has to take extra care of us. They can’t just leave the trash for three days on campus. There was a bad smell all over the place.”
Obviously, that was not the only reason that prompted angry female students to show their discontent with their university. Another student told the newspaper:
“we protested against the mistreatment our colleagues faced when they went out protesting last Wednesday. Security guards and members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice were present most of the time in front of the campus gate, but there were no incidents of arrests among them.”
This incident marks one of the rare, and daring, public protests by Saudi women in the history of the Kingdom. Female students were in fact speaking out against long-entrenched social attitudes towards women in the dominantly-conservative Saudi Arabia where women have made some impressive headways as professionals, yet continue to be deprived of some basic rights, and are banned from driving cars. In many ways, I have found the Saudi women’s protest rather normal in the context of Arab Spring developments. But what I found rather interesting has been the critical comments the incident has generated among Saudi women writers and commentators. No longer do national media serve as mouthpieces of official government views when it comes to emerging forms of social protestation in the age of Arab revolutions.
On 17th March 2012, Dr. Haya Al Manee wrote in Al Riyahd newspaper:
“It is no one’s right to question the loyalty of students at King Khalid University, who were calling for their basic rights. They might not have expressed themselves in the right way, but that is mainly related to the fact that doors have been always shut in their faces. Unfortunately, when the government fails to address the needs of its own people, it causes chaotic behaviors. What happened on that day is only solved with a strategic solution that takes into consideration the interest of all parties in the country.”
In Al Watan newspaper, Halima Muthaffar wrote:
“I could not believe my eyes when I saw a number of Saudi female students protesting in King Khalid University. Through my twitter account, those students were telling me that they are not protesting against the poor cleaning services on campus, but also against the way they are treated by everyone. What even made me question the professionalism of the university administration is a statement issued by a dean of one of the colleges, saying that students are demanding that we allow connection to the internet, and the use of iPads and BlackBerries!! What kind of a university does not have connection to the internet these days?!”
A very illuminating insight of the problem was put forward by Saudi scholar Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al Eissa, who wrote in Al Hayat newspaper:
“Our main challenge in this case derives from neither services provided for female students, nor the ability of Saudi women to run these institutes. The biggest challenge lies in our ability to imagine a real role for Saudi women in universities. The relationship between women and the educational institutes is vague and unclear, and is only defined by men in power.”
Of course, when the protest was over, the university president did not step down as demanded by female student protestors. The whole incident only led to the release of a public statement and report while the Governor of the Abha province met with the students to reassure them that their demands for better on-campus services would be met.
It is true that the Saudi press would continue to echo state positions on domestic and regional political issues and events. But when it comes to social issues pertaining to women rights, their new roles as voices of enlightenment on women’s rights are quite encouraging. The fact that most newspapers have come to address some of the serious problems and challenges Saudi women face in their daily lives demonstrates significant shifts in public attitudes towards women’s rights in that country.
It is those young writers and commentators who are turning out to be the new voices of Saudi women rights movement. With an emerging online wave of feminist enlightenment, those voice in traditional media channels would certainly serve as catalysts for new social and political transitions that are bound to define women’s roles and positions in Saudi society.