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'Saudi Women Revolution' makes a stand for equal rights

By Catriona Davies, for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Women recently turned away from registering for municipal elections around Saudi Arabia
  • "Saudi Women Revolution" began as a Facebook and Twitter campaign
  • Women are campaigning for end to male guardianship

(CNN) -- As election centers across Saudi Arabia opened on April 23 for voters to register for forthcoming municipal elections, groups of women turned up asking to take part.

As expected, they were turned away -- women will not be able to stand or vote in September's municipal elections -- but just by showing up they had made their point.

This was one of the first public acts of the newly-formed "Saudi Women Revolution," a movement set up to campaign for the end of Saudi Arabia's discriminatory laws.

Their chief aim is ending male guardianship, which means Saudi women often need permission from their husband, father, brother or even son to work, travel, study, marry, or access health care, according to Human Rights Watch.

They also want to be allowed to drive, which is forbidden for women in the Kingdom.

We will never stop fighting for our rights because it's time for change.
--Nuha Al Sulaiman

The Saudi Women Revolution was started as a Facebook page and a discussion topic, or hash tag, on Twitter in February, by Nuha Al Sulaiman.

Al Sulaiman, 28, said: "I started the Twitter hash tag to allow women to write whatever they are suffering from.

"It wasn't easy to do, particularly using the word 'revolution,' but I reached a point where I just had to do something about our daily suffering.

"In the past I couldn't meet people who have the same ideas as I have, but social media has made that possible."

The Facebook group now has more than 3,000 "likes" and a core of the women have met in person to discuss their campaign.

Al Sulaiman said: "We will do whatever it takes. We will go to the king himself. We will never stop fighting for our rights because it's time for change.

"Women should be able to take responsibility for everything they do themselves. It makes my blood drive high that nothing is changing."

Al Sulaiman said she and 11 other women had tried to register to vote at an election center in Riyadh, while other groups of women went to centers in Jeddah, Dammam and Khobar.

Municipal elections in Saudi Arabia will be held in September for only the second time in more than 40 years. The Saudi electoral commission was reported to have said that women cannot vote because preparations had not been made to keep them separate.

We are not half human beings, we are human beings.
--Khuloud al Fahad
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Rasha Al Duwaisi, a 30-year-old mother of two who took part in the protest, said: "The elections are a sham and many men are boycotting them. However, we still want the opportunity to be involved.

"The most important thing is we want women to be recognized as adults.

She added: "The first time I was interviewed in the media I was so nervous I was shaking. I'd never done anything like this before and I didn't know if I had antagonized the government.

"People are saying I'm immodest and against religion, but that isn't true."

Those involved are mostly young university-educated women. They said it took some time before they trusted each other enough to give their real names and to arrange to meet in person.

Not all Saudi women want to end male guardianship. In 2009, a group of Saudi women launched a campaign called "My Guardian Knows What's Best for Me," which attracted thousands of supporters.

But for Saudi Women Revolution, it's a matter of ending discrimination. Another member, Khuloud al Fahad, a 33-year-old mother of two and businesswoman, said: "We are trying to do this in a safe and correct way. We don't want problems with the government, we just want to send a message that we will not keep silent about this discrimination anymore.

"Our freedom is very restricted. I can't move without permission, I can't travel without permission, I can't have surgery without permission, I can't rent a flat without permission.

"When my daughter was in hospital, I wasn't even allowed to sign the papers for her to come home. We are not half human beings, we are human beings."

Wajeha al Huwaider, 49, a veteran Saudi women's rights campaigner who has long campaigned for the end of male guardianship, said the protests at the election centers were the right way to get the campaign noticed.

And the campaign has attracted support from outside the country. Mona Kareem, a journalist and blogger in Kuwait, supported Saudi Women Revolution by collating the most common demands from the group's Twitter topic into a statement to be sent to human rights organizations. She published it on her blog translated into seven languages.

Saudi Women Revolution is planning to publish its own formal statement of demands this week and will then be asking women to sign their names to it.

Even signing their names to the statement will take courage.

Al Huwaider said: "Women in this country don't even have control over their own names. Their husbands or fathers are angry with them if they put their name to something, which is why many are not willing to stand up for their rights.

"Women are just like property, owned by the men in their family."

 
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