For Saudi women, the shortest route from the back seat to the driver’s seat is looking them in the face: the opinion section of a media outlet. Saudi women, among the most suppressed in the world, must discover that public voice is public power.
Certainly, Saudi women are challenging the status quo – whether protesting the ban on driving or lobbying for their right to practice law. Indeed, last week 30 Saudi women were appointed to the kingdom’s Shura Council, the first official political positions for women in the country’s history. But it is the kingdom’s religious clerics who have corralled the forms of opinion-making – staking their claim in traditional and social media.
Their views are widely heard, reinforcing the country’s harsh sharia law which mandates segregation of the sexes in public and particularly punitive restrictions on women and girls, who may not work, travel, marry, or do much else without the permission of a male guardian.
It’s high time Saudi women give the clerics a run for their riyal. They can do that by following an American media example set by Katie Orenstein, the visionary founder of The OpEd Project. Her organization seeks to increase the number of women thought-leaders in many fields who can exercise their public voice on a wide spectrum of issues, often through the “op-ed” – the journalism term for opinion pieces such as this one.
I can attest to the influence of op-eds: After publishing my former experiences as a doctor in Saudi Arabia in op-eds, I’ve been invited to address UN delegates before a panel this March to speak about Saudi women and their human rights.
Through The OpEd Project, print and broadcast journalists and, eventually, alumni of the project, mentor women and minority opinion-shapers so they can get their views heard. In six short years, op-eds by women in leading US commentary outlets have increased by 40 percent, with Ms. Orenstein's project leading the way. The Op-Ed Project is planning its first international venture, in Norway. Let’s hope Saudi women are next.
I know just the Saudi woman who can champion such a project: Princess Ameerah al-Taweel. This young, stylish, determined woman is vice chairwoman of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation – named for her prince husband – which promotes education philanthropy and interfaith dialogue.
Her royal highness has assumed the mantle of change for women with a passion. In interviews with CNN, Forbes, and at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City, she said that the new generation of Saudi women not only wants to drive, they also want to contribute fully to their country. She even speaks of the power of the op-ed as a way for women to coordinate their efforts – just as the clerics do.
She advises "evolution, not revolution,” but at a much faster pace than in the past. Hers is a savvy and pragmatic approach to present-day Saudi Arabia, where 60 percent of the population is under 30 but conservative clerics are entrenched.
Change so far has been glacially slow, though King Abdullah has pushed harder for women in recent years than any other previous ruler. In 2009, he allowed women and men to share classes at a university, and granted women the right to run in municipal elections in 2015.
Princess Ameerah recognizes that opposition to women’s reforms is based in tradition and culture, but more specifically in the powerful lobby of the conservative Saudi religious establishment. The clerics repulse efforts toward liberal reforms even when instituted by the monarch himself.
Their power comes from royal patronage and state-sanctioned “official” Islam, including religious police. But their enhanced influence of today stems from the media, especially social networks.
The clerics rapidly fill columns on opinion pages as the princess pointed out in a September interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. They also mobilize the population through Twitter feeds. In contrast to their Luddite image, radical clerics were among the early adopters of social media in Saudi Arabia. Their tweets go out by the millions, many of them against women, including warning against sending Saudi women athletes to the Olympics. That particular effort thankfully failed, and the kingdom’s first judo athlete competed in London last summer, as well as a track athlete who holds dual US-Saudi citizenship.
Clerics or not, the number of Twitter users in Saudi Arabia is exploding. Saudis are the fastest growing group on the social networking site, with usage rising 3,000 percent in just one month last year, according to Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo.
Saudi women can beat the clerics at their own game. Among Muslim women, Saudis are some of the most educated, with mandatory education until the age of 16 ensuring high rates of literacy. The majority of university graduates in Saudi Arabia are women (58 percent), though women account for only 15 percent of the workforce.
Princess Ameerah and her organization are in an ideal position to build on this solid literate foundation and launch Saudi women into the socially networked sphere of citizen journalism, micro-blogging, and self-publishing.
The battle for women’s advancement – waged across broadsheets and twitter feeds – will be long and slow, but worthy, and ultimately won. It is unlikely to resemble the incendiary masses that the world has grown accustomed to in the two years since the Arab Spring exploded across TV, phone, and computer screens.
Instead, change in Saudi Arabia will demand a small cabal of influential, articulate “opinionistas” – willing and persuasive voices who publish and publish often. Only when The OpEd Project comes to Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, and Mecca, will Saudi women be heard in their own authentic voices.
[Editors note: The original version incorrectly identified Princess Ameerah al-Taweel's husband.]
Qanta A. Ahmed, an alumna of The Op-Ed Project, is the author of “In the Land of Invisible Women,” detailing her life in Saudi Arabia. She is associate professor of medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Follow Dr. Ahmed on Facebook, Twitter (@MissDiagnosis), and her Huffington Post blog.