GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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Saudi women as decision makers: analyzing the image of the female political participation in Saudi Arabia
Paper Proposal Text :
The reign of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (2005-2015) has been widely accepted as a progressive one, especially in the area of female empowerment. After formally ascending the throne in 2005, women's status became “one of the primary items on [King Abdullah’s] reform agenda” (Freedom House, 2012). His policies concerned increasing participation of women in the public sphere as well as encouraging their contribution in the economy. Within the first area of reforms, the king appointed Norah al-Faiz to the post of deputy minister for education in 2009, the first Saudi woman to hold a ministerial position. Similarly, in 2011 he extended the suffrage rights to enable women to participate in municipal council elections from 2015 onwards. In 2015, 20 female municipal councillors were elected across the country. Besides increasing female political participation, Saudi women became visible on the international scene when they competed for the first time in the Olympics in 2012. These changes were accompanied by a growing visibility of women in the media since mid-2006 (Sakr, 2008). King Abdullah also pushed further women's tertiary education opportunities. He included female students in the King Abdullah Scholarship Program established in 2005. King Abdullah's decisions to grant women the right to vote and to stand for municipal elections as well as to include women in the Shura Council revived the fundamental debate on women in Saudi society where women's faces are discretely airbrushed or blurred from pictures on public displays.
The aim of this paper is to compare and contrast the portrayal of female political participation in the kingdom created in the Saudi media and in the international media. Through discourse analysis of the media coverage surrounding the latest municipal elections, we are going to uncover the image of Saudi women as decision makers. On the one hand side, our analysis will focus on the official Saudi media, while on the other hand, we will focus on the American and British coverage. Through the analysis, firstly, we would like to uncover the shift in the portrayal of women as a subject group, requiring constant approvals of guardians in the public sphere, to a group that makes its own decisions and actively participates in politics. We would like to see what types of discourses support that drastic shift in the official media discourses. Secondly, the Western media coverage will allow us to understand the portrayal of the Saudi female political participation in the Western countries that uphold human rights and gender equality, while at the same time being allies of the Saudi state. For this purpose we will employ analysis of the media articles in order to uncover frames surrounding female participation in politics. Frames are defined as “schemata of interpretation that enable individuals to locate, perceive, identify, and label occurrences within their life space and the world at large” (Snow, Rochford, Worden & Benford, 1986, p. 464). For the purpose of analysis, we will use qualitative content analysis, which concentrates on the text itself, complemented by discourse analysis, which, on the contrary, concentrates on understanding “the meaning of social reality for actors” (Hardy, Harley & Nelson, 2004, p. 19).
Ultimately, we will contrast our findings with the perceptions of young female Saudis. Through 30 semi-structured interviews, this study will shed light on the complexities of political empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia, and specifically in the Eastern Province. We will aim at assessing, among others, how the perceptions of Saudi women compare with the state official discourses. Do they feel empowered? Do they see themselves as decision makers? In addition, we will try to assess if Saudi women see the impact of Western influence on the Saudi state with regards to women. Do they see the latest reforms as Saudi-born or an effect of Western pressure?