Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Women’s Rights Advance in Saudi Arabia

by Isobel Coleman
September 26, 2011

Saudi women celebrate the country's National Day in Riyadh two days before King Abdullah announced women will vote in the 2015 elections (Fahad Shadeed/Courtesy Reuters).

Congratulations to Saudi women. They just took a big step forward in their quest to become full citizens of their country. King Abdullah announced yesterday that, starting in the next 12-18 months, women will be able to join the consultative Shura Council, and be allowed to run as candidates and vote in the country’s municipal elections. That delayed time frame means women will miss out on this week’s elections, and conveniently, the next election cycle is not scheduled to take place until 2015. But since the decision to exclude women from the upcoming vote had been made long ago, yesterday’s announcement was greeted mostly with excitement and satisfaction by Saudi women activists. Journalist and women’s rights leader Sabria Jawhar says on her blog that calling the decree a “historic moment would be an understatement.” Hatoon Al-Fassi, a women’s rights activist and professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, describes it as “the first step in our long struggle to get our rights.” However, Wajeha Al-Huwaider, another notable activist, expresses disappointment over the delay. “We don’t really think now that we’ve been promised a real right because it’s been postponed,” she says. Noting that the next elections are years away, she warns that “whatever can be given can be taken.”

Regional unrest undoubtedly played into the timing of the King’s decision, a fact acknowledged by many Saudi women activists. Sabria Jawhar says she is “convinced the King likely would have given women the right to vote and Shura Council membership with or without our neighbors taking to the streets. But certainly there was an urgency to grant these rights now rather than later.”

In his short speech in front of the Shura Council, during which he was interrupted several times by applause, King Abdullah said his government was taking this step because “we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with sharia.” Of course, it is conservative interpretations of sharia that have been used to deny Saudi women many of their basic rights, including, until now, the right to participate in politics. They are still banned from driving, and in the name of sharia, women must have a male guardian to transact many daily activities; strict gender segregation continues to be enforced in most public places. King Abdullah was careful to position his decree within Islamic history, and to justify the decision with Islamic arguments. Muslim women, he noted, had been giving “opinions and advice since the era of Prophet Muhammad.” He also emphasized that senior religious scholars had endorsed the changes.

Reactions in the Saudi press so far have been mostly positive. In the liberal-leaning pan-Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, Saudi columnist Badriya Al-Bashar praises the announcement as “brave,” but warns that the struggle is not over yet. She urges the government not to stop with political rights, but to extend other basic rights to women. “The ball is in the court of the state institutions,” she writes, “starting with the Shura Council and then in the other councils, the universities, and the traffic department.” “We are now looking for even more,” concurs Fawaziah Bakr, an education professor in Riyadh.

The King’s decree on women’s political rights will inevitably encourage demands for more change, and it is bound to fan the flames under the perennial driving issue. Women activists launched a Right2Drive campaign this past spring, using social media to generate support. Despite a harsh crackdown on women drivers, including several arrests in recent months, some undaunted women have continued to defy the ban, and publicly go about their errands in Riyadh and Jeddah behind the wheel of their cars.

Ironically, allowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia has proven to be a more contentious issue than extending them political rights. Why? Allowing women to vote and run for municipal councils and serve on the Shura Council will affect only a tiny number of women. After all, Saudi Arabia continues to be an absolute monarchy, so the women’s role, while symbolically significant, will be relatively minor in practice. Allowing women to drive, on the other hand, affects day-to-day life for every Saudi family. Social conservatives, fearing the loss of control over women that driving would entail, will continue to resist this step for a long time. The ban on driving will of course fall under its own anachronistic weight, but I do not expect the King to make any grand announcements on that front soon.

Thanks to my research associate, Thalia Beaty, for providing the Arabic translations.

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