But there is one piece of real good news: the prospect of women joining the boards of Saudi literary clubs. The inclusion of women had been under discussion since 2010, when the Ministry of Culture and Information released a list of guidelines for prospective candidates to these state-run clubs that did not expressly restrict women from participating in the election process. On Tuesday, the Riyadh Literary Club announced that four women (and six men) had been elected to its board. Women were also elected to the boards of similar clubs in other Saudi cities. Although Saudi literary clubs are not political venues per se, they have provided an important cultural and social space for Saudi journalists, academics, and intellectuals since the 1980s. In that time, the clubs have positioned themselves as rivals of the country's Islamists, struggling against religious networks for influence in the public sphere and for the chance to articulate the best path forward for Saudi society. While the clubs and their backers lack the public support of the omnipresent Islamists, they are hardly irrelevant. Joining the board should afford Saudi women the opportunity to participate in the clubs' decision-making processes in terms of organizing conferences, presenting papers, selecting speakers, and other professional activities.
The move also enjoins women to participate more directly in the kingdom's ongoing culture wars. Prior to the latest elections, conservative Islamists had objected to the inclusion of women in active roles at literary clubs. While Islamists would have Saudi women largely confined to the domestic sphere, this latest development signals -- at least symbolically -- that women's participation in the public sphere is on the rise. It also makes clear that prominent intellectual and literary networks see the struggle over women's rights as a key battleground for cultural influence and even supremacy. Saudi culture wars are nothing new, but with the rising support for women, they are heating up.
It should also be noted that the Riyadh Literary Club's newly elected president, vice-president, administrative official, and financial official are all men. The four women are merely "members" with no administrative position, something that troubles new board member Huda al-Dighafaq, who told Saudi newspaper Al-Madina:
Personally, I did not expect only four women to be elected overall as board members. I was surprised that some of our female colleagues, when asked, declared that they had no desire to occupy administrative positions, and some did not seem enthusiastic about the prospect of voting for a female colleague and preferred to vote for the men, who won the administrative positions. This signals a swift return to male domination. This has discouraged me greatly.
Another of the four newly elected women, Laila al-Ahaidib, said she does not share al-Dighafaq's disappointment. Al-Ahaidib expressed her satisfaction at the results of the election and questioned whether the board's administrative members really wield more authority.
As is often the case in Saudi Arabia, it appears that even the most symbolic of inclusive gestures in Saudi Arabia are contested, in more ways than one. But maybe this one will make a difference.