This week history has been made – for the very first time, in Saudi Arabia women have been allowed to vote and to even stand as candidates. For an ultra-conservative nation it is a huge political landmark, particularly now that the Kingdom can boast its first female councillor, Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi.
The elections however have not escaped criticism. Some have called the elections ‘window dressing’, others have noted the gender divide that has continued throughout the election campaign, in line with Saudi Arabia’s strict rules – female candidates are not permitted to directly address the male electorate, nor are female voters permitted to use the same polling booths as their male counterparts. Similarly, commentary to the elections has focussed on the fact that women cannot even drive themselves to the polling stations, perhaps preventing some would-be voters.
Whilst the above appears discouraging, particularly in consideration of the many obstacles that women still face in the country, it is nevertheless progress – the sense of achievement felt by many women voting and/or standing in the election should not be underestimated.
It does however beg the question what is so frightening about women, not just in Saudi Arabia, that we are still campaigning for female rights?
In a lot of poorer or developing countries, females face gender discrimination – in China, the one child policy is linked to sex-selective abortion, in India female literacy rates are much lower than male literacy rates, in Latin America the murder rate of females is so high that it has its own name, femicide.
The developed world also has its problems – Britain is still in its infancy when it comes to female emancipation, it was only in 1928 that suffrage was granted to all women over the age of 21. There are also disputes in Hollywood over the gender pay gap, highlighted by Jennifer Lawrence. At a UN talk, Emma Watson also advocated the HeforShe campaign which fights for gender equality, and for the support of men in achieving this globally.
For campaigns to be successful you have to have support, but you also have to understand why things are as they are, and why certain groups want to keep things that way. Which brings us back to the question, what is it that people/groups/organisations/cultures find so disturbing or indeed difficult about gender equality?
The answer is varied: for some it is plain sexism and misogyny, for others it comes down to a lack of resources (ie. money) to fund education and equal opportunities, it might also come down to shifting deeply ingrained mass cultural attitudes towards gender roles, to comfort and safety, or even to plain and simple fear that women might start asking questions and challenging boundaries.
Whatever the answer, we would do well to remember that it’s no good sitting on the sideline. There are some amazing women doing amazing things, but for gender equality to happen we all have to work together, and education is key to this.
~One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen, can change the world ~ Malala Yousafzai