Saudi Women Get the Vote. And a Seat at the Global Table?
WASHINGTON -- In a televised speech from the annual meeting of his Shura advisory council on September 25, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz declared that women could be appointed members of the 150-member Shura assembly in the next term and will be able to run for office and vote in municipal elections in 2015. The announcement was hailed as a giant leap forward for the nation’s women by observers around the world. The White House welcomed the proclamation and noted the “reforms recognize the significant contributions women in Saudi Arabia make to their society and will offer them new ways to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and communities.” The European reaction was similarly encouraging. Britain’s foreign secretary praised the step, saying the U.K. supports moves to increase political and economic participation of women across the Arab world. The spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry called the decree a major advancement for the rights of women in Saudi society. EU High Representative Catherine Ashton welcomed the announcement and encouraged Saudi authorities to continue on the path toward equality between men and women. The decree also won praise from the United Nations, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and Human Rights Watch. But while it will remove Saudi Arabia’s stigma of being among the last countries to give women suffrage — thus increasing both the country’s standing among Western allies and its credibility in global affairs — it is not yet clear whether this decision promises real change in women’s empowerment or is an illusion that will dissipate upon closer inspection. In practice, there are several reasons why King Abdullah’s announcement may have little impact on Saudi society. Only half of the seats on the 178 local councils are elected. Religious authorities may pressure women not to vote. If appointed to the Shura Council, women will not sit in the same room as men but will participate by closed circuit television. And those in power in 2015 may decide entirely against implementing the change. It is worth noting that similar announcements have met with disappointment before. In 2004, the Saudi government announced that elections would be held the following year. The gender-neutral wording of the announcement did not say women could not vote, so five women announced their candidacies to seats on local councils. But after several months, the government claimed that, because of a lack of polling stations, women would be excluded from the polls. The timing of the latest royal decree may be tied to concerns about restiveness within a population that has witnessed demands for reforms in the neighborhood during the Arab Spring. The Saudi kingdom signaled its recognition of domestic discontent in March by creating a generous package of jobs, services, and assistance for needy citizens. Some Saudi women also see the decree as insufficient given continuing social inequalities that have yet to be addressed. Activist Wajeha al-Hawaidar told the Associated Press that the changes should be implemented immediately, not in years to come. Madawi Al-Rasid, a professor of social anthropology at King’s College in London, was quoted in Al-Ahram Weekly that the announcement was superficial, aimed at appeasing those pushing for real change. Saudi women are still not allowed to drive. Two days after the suffrage announcement, a judge in Jeddah sentenced a female activist to a sentence of 10 lashes for getting behind the wheel of a car, a punishment subsequently overturned by the king. Women must also get permission from a male relative to get a job, go to college, or travel abroad. A member of the senior cleric council signaled discontent with the proposed electoral reform, saying he had not been consulted, which suggests that there may be a conservative backlash. At the same time, giving women the right to vote comes just as women in Saudi Arabia are seeing cumulative gains in many aspects of life, especially in higher education and business. It is becoming a mark of prestige among the Saudi elite to have a wife with a Ph.D. The king opened a co-ed university two years ago and the world’s largest female-only university this year on the outskirts of Riyadh. He also recently appointed the country’s first female deputy minister. The Women’s Chamber of Commerce of Saudi Arabia is among the most dynamic in the region, and the king took businesswomen with him on a recent trade trip to China. While there are grounds for skepticism, the powerful symbolism of the king’s edict cannot be easily dismissed. His declaration is seen as a formal recognition of gender equality by the only person in the kingdom with enough clout to overcome clerics’ objections and transfer authority over social issues from the religious to the political establishment. By giving its women a voice in political discourse, Saudi Arabia may be working to have its own voice heard in a global political arena that values human and gender rights. King Abdullah’s formal announcement also created societal expectations that will outlive his reign. An editorial cartoon in the pan-Arab daily newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat depicts a woman in a black burqa emerging from a bottle, mincing hesitantly forward. The genie’s first steps may be limited, but they promise greater strides to come. Judith Baroody is a Senior Resident Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC, and a Senior U.S. Foreign Service Officer. The views expressed in this article are her own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the German Marshall Fund, the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government. Photo by Reuters News
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