Saudi King Abdullah recently announced that women in Saudi Arabia would now be given the right to vote and run for future municipal elections. But given how many rights are denied to women in the country, how much should we applaud such a decision that is typically a no-brainer in the rest of the world?
On the surface, this decision may seem superficial, given that women in Saudi Arabia have the least amount of rights in the MENA region, and perhaps in the world. As outlined by Freedom House’s 2010 report on women’s rights in MENA, women are left immobile due to social stipulations that prevent them from driving and a law that bans them from leaving the country without male supervision. This has led them to have inadequate access to employment, health care, and justice, leaving them vulnerable to domestic violence within the home as they become dependent on men.
Thus, with these restrictions, and due to the strong and prevailing social stigma against women, it is difficult to imagine they will do very well in any election or even make it to the voting booths, making such a move appear cursory.
However, what makes this move significant is that there was no real great pressure on the theocratic monarchy to make such a move. Saudi Arabia's vast wealth, close connection to the U.S. (Western states rarely criticize its record of gender rights abuse), and control over Mecca and Medina grant it a power and legitimacy that is not afforded to many other states in the region. Its strict application of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative branch of Islam which uses a literal interpretation of the Koran and Sunna, is supported by much of the population and especially the clerics. In fact, the clerics have opposed the smallest of gender reforms. Even when women employed their "Right-to-Drive" campaign in June they were careful to keep their protest within the confines of their Islamic "duties." The regime has been very careful in implementing reforms so as to not expose itself as weak during the surrounding Arab Spring that was affecting other states.
Abdullah demonstrated in the past some comparatively liberal rhetoric on women's rights. For example, in 2004, he initiated the National Dialogue Conference on Women, and in 2005, he announced that women would eventually gain the right to drive. This current announcement is purely based on Abdullah’s increasing progressivism, and finally he is putting action to words.
The move could be the proverbial pebble in the pond. The road to greater female empowerment and egalitarianism in the country has to start somewhere, and each small reform builds gradually upon the idea of the social acceptance of women within Saudi Arabia. Such reforms, coupled with Saudi Arabia’s increasingly educated female population, could further progress female emancipation.
Though the move may seem trite given all the other obstacles still in Saudi Arabian women's way, these reforms are finally a step forward for women in Saudi Arabia. And for the moment, that deserves a standing ovation from the international community.
Photo Credit: Retlaw Snellac