Saudi women given the right to vote, at last

King Abdullah announced yesterday that Saudi women will be allowed to vote and stand as candidates in the next elections.  This is welcome news — if it actually happens* — that comes (many) decades late and is still undertaken with no great haste: it won’t take effect until 2015.  But Saudi Arabia is the only country of any size that holds elections and does not allow women to vote in them; the others on that ignominious list are small outliers, like Vatican City, Bhutan, and Brunei.

Of course, there are a lot of things Saudi women aren’t allowed to do and it is hard not to see the King’s move as a baby-steps response to the revolutions sweeping the Arab world and, perhaps, to the lengthy civil disobedience campaign in which Manal al-Sharif and other Saudi women have been uploading videos of themselves driving around Saudi Arabia in defiance of the government’s refusal to grant them driving licenses.  As Manal al-Sharif says in the video above: there are Saudi women with PhDs who are deemed by the state to be incapable of driving.

Many foreigners have been surprised by the assertive self-confidence of the women in these driving videos — and the inventive sass of the accompanying graffiti stickers — in part because one doesn’t meet a lot of Saudi women outside the Middle East so there’s little to counter the perception that veiling is a sign of a broader submission to patriarchal society and much misunderstanding about the ways in which they already empower themselves within the context of their society.  In fact, a lot of supposedly cloistered Saudi women, like women throughout the Gulf, have gone to university or travelled in more liberal cities like Beirut, Cairo, or London and are quite familiar with how to navigate a society with greater individual liberty; at home, they generally played by the rules (at least outwardly) because until this year almost every Arab everywhere, male or female, felt powerless to change the rules, whether social or political.

All that acquiescence has been upended now and it remains to be seen what will come of it.  There has been no shortage of elections across the Arab world for decades; what has been lacking is democracy, with free and fair elections that determine who runs the country and leaves leaders accountable to their citizens.  So it’s great that Saudi women got the vote, but elections now are limited to local administration.  When their vote — and that of Saudi men — determines who rules them, we’ll know the new era has come to Saudi Arabia at last.


* There are grounds for skepticism: nearly four years ago, the Saudi government tried the reverse tactic, as the Telegraph (UK) reported in January 2008:

Saudi Arabia is to lift its ban on women drivers in an attempt to stem a rising suffragette-style movement in the deeply conservative state. Government officials have confirmed the landmark decision and plan to issue a decree by the end of the year. The move is designed to forestall campaigns for greater freedom by women, which have recently included protesters driving cars through the Islamic state in defiance of a threat of detention and loss of livelihoods.

As it happens, Saudi women got neither the right to drive nor to vote in the years that followed.  Of course, at that time it looked like Zine el Abidine Ben ‘Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt would rule forever so the Saudi regime may now feel more obligation to live up to their promises.



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