Saudi Arabia Grants Women Limited Election Rights
On September 25, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia made world headlines by proclaiming the right of his female subjects to nominate and compete as candidates in municipal elections. The king also pledged to appoint women to the country’s 150-member, unelected “shura council,” or executive consultative body. The decision coincided with weekend celebrations of Saudi National Day, which commemorates the foundation of the state by King Abd Al-Aziz Ibn Saud in 1932, and falls officially on September 23. But the new rules for female electoral participation will not apply on Thursday, September 29. when the desert realm holds the second nationwide polling in its recent history.
As with other events in the current panorama of revolution, reform, and repression in the Arab countries, the Saudi decision has elicited contradictory analyses. The unexpected royal proclamation provides only that introduction of women into the shura council will begin with the institution’s following term, in 2013. Women may nominate and run as candidates in municipal balloting beginning with its next round, in 2015.
Enthusiastic observers may view the increased right of women to participate in Saudi politics as a major change. But, as noted in the London Independent, women, who own at least 80,000 motor vehicles in Saudi Arabia, are still barred from driving them, although King Abdullah promised them the right to operate cars on the sprawling grounds of the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). In May 2011, Saudi women began a brief series of protests, influenced by the mass mobilizations in other Arab lands, in which they took to the steering wheel. But the unwritten, “theological” ban on women driving remains in place.
Saudi women are also still oppressed by so-called “guardianship” rules under which they may not travel, open a bank account, or visit a doctor without being accompanied by a male relative. “Guardianship” is further used to bar women from professions in which they might deal with men to whom they are not related, although such obstacles to ordinary commerce have long been excluded from traditional Islamic law. Other abuses continue, including treatment of rape as a crime caused by women who mix with men from outside their families, to whom they are not married, or without a chaperone, as well as so-called “honor” murders, forced marriages, forced divorces between “inappropriate” tribes, clans, and families, female genital mutilation, and restriction of women’s rights in court proceedings.
Before King Abdullah’s action is hailed as a major step toward liberation of Saudi women, one should be reminded additionally that the monarch is 87 years old, and that his program of reform by limited steps could be reversed between now and the relevant sessions of the shura and municipal councils, even if he lives to see them. The Saudi ruler has made undeniable changes in the governance of his country, most notably in introducing greater freedom in media, but he remains an isolated figure opposed by many powerful members of the royal family. At the same time, fundamentalist Wahhabi clerics maintain control over religious life in the country.