Cross-posted at Daily Kos. Today, the Kuwaiti parliament approved in principle a law “giving women in the conservative emirate the right for the first time to vote and stand in October’s municipal council elections.” The Kuwaiti prime minister said, “Thank God, the first step towards women’s rights has been completed.”
One of the few countries where women can’t vote is Saudi Arabia. Tonight, PBS Frontline airs “Death of a Princess,” a docudrama about a Saudi princess’s execution for adultery. The docudrama was shown in 1980, reports the New York Times, “over the objections of the Saudi government, the State Dept., members of Congress and Mobil Oil, a major PBS sponsor.” It has not been seen since. More below:
More about “Death of a Princess” below.
First: The BBC has organized a list of the status of women’s rights to vote in Mid-East countries:
- Women can vote and be elected: Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Palestinian territories, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Yemen, Morocco, Tunis, Algeria, Iran
- Women cannot vote or be elected: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia
- There are no elections: Syria (holds presidential referenda in which women can vote), UAE, Libya
The “vote in principle” to give Kuwaiti women passed by 26 votes to 20, with 3 abstaining. The law gives “women in the conservative emirate the right for the first time to vote and stand in October’s municipal council elections.”
Those who voted in favour included 13 cabinet ministers present during Tuesday’s session [PHOTO: where women were allowed to attend and observe
], as well as liberal and Shiite MPs. All tribal Islamist lawmakers, who are staunchly opposed to women’s rights, voted against the bill.
“We are waiting for the major step [a second and third round of voting within the next two weeks] and I am sure it will be approved like this one,” Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah said in reference to granting women the right to vote and contest parliamentary polls.
“I congratulate my sisters for obtaining their rights in municipal elections and they will get their other rights in voting and standing in parliamentary elections,” he told reporters after the vote.
The premier said he was confident Kuwaiti women would get their full political rights during the current parliamentary term which ends in June and said he would appoint a female cabinet minister once women are enfranchised.
“This is the first step towards women’s full political rights,” said Rula Dashti, chairwoman of the Kuwait Economic Society.
About a new postscript added for the airing of “Death of a Princess” tonight on PBS stations, the New York Times writes:
Perhaps the clearest explanation of why women have made so little progress in a country that has embraced so many aspects of Western life is offered in the new postscript by Mona Eltahawy, an Arab journalist. She explains that in Saudi society, women’s emancipation is viewed as the most drastic and dangerous form of Westernization: the ultimate abandonment of tradition and Arab culture.
“So it’s this paradox,” Ms. Eltahawy says. “The more open and modernized you become, the tighter you must hold onto women in particular, and children, to show what a good Saudi you are and what a good Muslim you are.”
The NYT piece reveals the difficulties that the docu-drama makers encountered in trying to ferret out the facts behind the accusations of adultery:
“Death” remains a thoughtful, engrossing film, though in retrospect it is as telling about the journalistic process as it is of life behind the veil. After hearing reports that a Saudi princess and her lover had been executed for adultery in 1977, a British journalist, Antony Thomas, decided to investigate. He stumbled across so much fear and secrecy
from sources that he concluded he would never be able to make a conventional documentary. He turned his reporting into a docudrama, hiring actors to re-enact the interviews he conducted in London, Paris, Beirut and Saudi Arabia.
By today’s standards, his is a fairly tame look at a horrifying act. The execution, conducted in public (men only, that is) in a sandy lot, is only briefly shown. The princess, wrapped in a chador, was shot. Her lover, a young Saudi, was beheaded. The camera pulls away before the first blow of the sword.
Mr. Thomas calls himself Christopher Ryder (played by Paul Freeman) in the film, and most of the action is the reporter’s journey past red herrings, misinformation and other frustrations that make investigative reporting so rare. He cannot nail down even basic facts: where the princess met her lover, how their romance was discovered. Sources are mysterious and misleading, and not just in the Middle East. Ryder’s toughest interview is with a German named Elsa Gruber (Judy Parfitt) who served as a nanny for the royal family and knew the princess a little. Miss Gruber is in turn coy, volatile and paranoid, worried that Ryder is trying to steal information she could sell as a book.
The Princess (Suzanne Abou Taleb) is left an enigma and is shown only a few times, usually as described by Ms. Gruber: dancing wildly at an all-female party in a palace.
After a very long road, Ryder is introduced to a woman who is referred to only as the Emira, and who seems to have most of the facts of the story as well as a firsthand knowledge of how Saudi high society really works. She explains to Ryder how rich married women find lovers. “There’s a road in the desert,” she says. “Women go there to look men over. Every evening, at about 5. When they choose a man, if it works, it works. And if it doesn’t, they just move on.”
In the 1980 film, one of Ryder’s closest Arab friends tells him that his story is “the whole Arab predicament: How much of our past must we abandon? How much of your present is worth imitating?”
About the mystery, the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail writes that as “you watch Death of a Princess you realize that the narrative muddle is the point. The journalist, Christopher Ryder (Paul Freeman), traipses around the Middle East and hears all manner of variations on the story of the Princess.”
On its Frontline site, PBS talks about the tremendous difficulties encountered 25 years ago:
Despite the furor and the pressure [Mobil Oil, then a major financial supporter of public television, and the U.S. State Department, under acting Secretary of State Warren Christopher], executives at PBS and WGBH Boston, which produced the program, stood firm and the film was broadcast on May 12, 1980 to enormous public attention. (To this day, it remains the highest rated public affairs program in PBS history.)
“It was a bald question: would the journalistic enterprise be defended against the powerful political and economic opposition?” recalled Peter McGhee, the former head of national production at WGBH. “If we hadn’t stood fast, we would have had nothing. We would have been reduced to a morning children’s service. So we had no alternative but to either prevail or be destroyed. And in the end…[the decision to broadcast the
film] put a chock behind the back wheel of public television.”
After its initial controversial broadcast in 1980, “Death of a Princess” disappeared from view and hasn’t been seen in the U.S. in 25 years.
It’s back tonight. And I’m looking forward to watching.
And I hope that, someday, Saudi women are given the right to vote and to hold office, as have their sisters in Kuwait and around the Middle East.