GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Saudi Women and the Arab Spring
Paper Proposal Text :
My paper will focus on Saudi Arabia in the context of the impact of events in the last year or so that have collectively come to be known as the “Arab Spring.” I will concentrate on the theme of gender, seeking to understand how Saudi women have been influenced by these events, but also the degree to which they have contributed to shaping them. Generally speaking, one is tempted to say that the “Arab Spring” has not impacted Saudi society and its politics because, among other things, the regime has moved pre-emptively to distribute money as a way of buying off potential protestors. Without denying that it has adopted such a strategy, I will argue that the population has not been insulated from the events of the last year throughout the Arab world.
For example, the 17 June 2011 reprise by a number of Saudi women of earlier suppressed demands (6 November 1990) to secure the right to drive automobiles seems due to reform pressures sweeping the Arab world as part of the trends of the Arab Spring. And on 25 September 2011, King `Abdallah announced that women could serve on the advisory Shura Council and would be allowed to vote in the next cycle of municipal elections. It seems probable that the monarch would not have taken this initiative in the absence of Arab Spring trends that had also pervaded the society in the previous months. It is worth stressing that the King was not simply responding to general trends in the Middle East and North Africa but was taking his cues also from the voicing of women’s demands in the media over the course of several years.
Because women in most other Arab states already have the right to drive cars, can vote, and run for political office, it is unlikely that in these realms Saudi women have contributed to the maturing of women’s demands for empowerment in those other states. On the other hand, it can be argued that a greater sense of self-confidence on the part of women in Saudi Arabia feeds on and enhances existing or accelerating trends in the realms of women’s political, social, and economic enfranchisement elsewhere in the Arab world. To be sure, the likelihood also exists that as Islamist or Islamic-oriented groups and parties gain an increasingly assured voice throughout the region, with the ongoing processes of the Arab Spring, women’s rights may become further curtailed, rather than expanded.
Classical theories of political participation, which is considered critical to the concept and practice of democracy, stress such formal activities as voting or joining political parties, or attending conventions or caucuses. Any discussion of participation by women in Saudi Arabia necessarily involves more indirect forms of behavior, such as writing to newspaper editors, authoring articles in the media, calling in during television shows, attending lectures, organizing seminars in private homes, and the like. Whether political participation takes the more formal or informal mode, the purpose is to influence decision makers and policy formulators. Social movement theory suggests that to be successful at this requires the confluence of three factors: opportunity; resource mobilization; framing.
Sidney Tarrow has problematized opportunity in terms of the following elements: 1) increasing access to the political arena, 2) shifting alignments that facilitate such access, 3) division among elites, whose disunity provides scope for protesters, 4) availability of influential allies that had not previously been at hand, and 5) repression and facilitation.
When one speaks of resource mobilization in the context of Saudi women, one does not mean the overt aggregation of groups and organizations, together with their assets, for the pursuit of common objectives. Instead, such aggregation must take place behind the scenes, away from the open spaces of the political system. The assets involved may range from morale, to funds, to rhetorical skills, to sheer numbers of participants.
Lastly, framing has to do with the way groups portray the issues for which they are striving. Scholars such as Snow and Benson stress the importance of framing as a process, thereby accounting for the possibility of any shifts in the way movement participants envision matters over the course of their efforts. The social justice frame is probably the most relevant for the case I am examining.
Saudi women cannot be analyzed in terms of constituting a social movement in the strict sense of the concept, since social movements require mass action in public arenas. Still, I propose to use elements of social movement theory to examine their participation during the Arab Spring period. I will emphasize division among elites and availability of influential allies (the King and media elites) as aspects of the opportunity structure favorable to their increasing participation. I will stress their increased ability to direct attention to their issues in television shows and newspaper space in terms of resource mobilization. And I will accord due attention to their issue framing of inequities that constrain their autonomy -- inequities they believe stem from paternalistic and patriarchal interpretations of scripture by men. Depending on source availability, I will seek to draw some comparisons and contrasts to the situation in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen.