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Wed 30 Mar 2011 02:14 PM

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Arab unrest spurs Saudi women to step up

Activists in the kingdom turn to social media to press home message of reform

Arab unrest spurs Saudi women to step up
Activists pushing an online campaign for reform said that Saudi women "are like other women in the world who have hopes and ambitions" and must be allowed to vote

Activists among Saudi Arabia's women, who can't drive or vote and need male approval to work and travel, are turning to the type of online organizing that helped topple Egypt's Hosni Mubarak to force change in a system that they say treats them like children.

The 'Baladi' or 'My Country' campaign is focused on this year's municipal elections, only the second nationwide ballot that the absolute monarchy has allowed. The election board said Monday that women would be excluded from the September 22 vote.

Another group, the Saudi Women's Revolution, citing inspiration from the Arab activism that grew into revolts against Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, is pressing for equal treatment and urging international support.

The wave of anti-regime protests hasn't translated into mass demonstrations in the kingdom that holds the world's biggest oil reserves. Saudi rulers have taken steps to ensure it won't, pledging almost $100bn spending on homes, jobs and benefits. They deployed thousands of police in Riyadh on March 11, when a protest was planned by Internet organizers - a group that increasingly includes Saudi women.

"Women are raised to fear men and to fear speaking out," Mona al-Ahmed, 25, said from Jeddah. She said she joined Women's Revolution after her brother refused to let her take her dream job, as a biochemist, because it would involve working in a mixed-gender environment.

"I opened my eyes one day and said, 'This is not the life I want,' " al-Ahmed said.

Like other Saudi opposition and protest groups, the women's movement faces a tough task. The kingdom ranked as the least democratic state in the Middle East, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2010 Democracy Index.

On its Facebook page, Baladi said that Saudi women "are like other women in the world who have hopes and ambitions" and must be allowed to vote.

While Saudi Arabia placed in the top one-third of nations in the UN 2010 Human Development Report, its score for gender equality - which includes assessments of reproductive health and participation in politics and the labor market - put it 128th out of 138 nations, below Iran and Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia enforces the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, and its clerics say that requires strict segregation of the sexes, including in workplaces and public spaces.

Other areas of discontent include family law. A Saudi man can end his marriage by telling his wife, "You are divorced," while women must go to a court or an authorized cleric to get a dissolution. Custody of children above a certain age is usually granted to the father.

Saudi Arabia is also one of the few countries with a high rate of executions for women, Amnesty International said in a 2008 report. Adultery is among the capital offenses.

"Authorities continue to systematically suppress or fail to protect the rights of nine million Saudi women and girls," Human Rights Watch said in a January report.

In an open letter earlier to Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, it urged his government to meet pledges it had made to end "male guardianship over women, to give full legal identity to Saudi women, and to prohibit gender discrimination."

Those are among the goals of the Women's Revolution group, which began as an exchange of Twitter messages among like-minded women and now has more than 2,000 Facebook supporters.

"Women are treated like minors, except if they commit a crime," it said on Facebook. "Then they are equal."

Saudi King Abdullah, 86, has pledged to improve women's status. He opened the kingdom's first coed university in 2009, appointed its first female deputy minister, and has promised steps to improve access to jobs for women, who make up about 15 percent of the workforce.

A change of policy in 2008 let women stay in hotels without male guardians, and an amendment to the Labor Law allowed women to work in all fields "suitable to their nature." Women can now study law at university, without being allowed to practice as lawyers in courts.

Gaining the vote would help change the world's perception of Saudi women, as well as improve their lives, the Baladi campaigners say.

"The stereotype of women in Saudi Arabia is that they are unaccounted for, incapable of reacting to their surroundings and vulnerable to cruelty," the group said. "It is vital to contribute to change such perceptions."