It tells us much about the modern media and blogosphere when we get excited about news from Saudi Arabia that essentially means very little. Can women in Saudi Arabia run for office in this Thursday’s municipal elections? No. Can they vote? No. But a post-dated political check by an ailing monarch has made global headlines. And yet, a woman sentenced to ten lashes today in Jeddah for violating a driving ban has received no media attention (thus far).
King Abdullah, by all accounts a relative reformer, promised over a decade ago that he would “open all doors for Saudi women to enable them to make their full contributions to the nation…which is in great need of them,” yet to this day in Saudi Arabia women cannot work in most sectors. In 1961, the first elementary schools for girls were opened in Saudi Arabia by King Saud, ushering in an age of hope that women would be educated, work, and enjoy equal status. Fifty years later, that promise is yet to be realized.
I lived in Saudi Arabia in 2005, when King Abdullah had recently taken the throne. He regularly spoke about the need to bring about full human rights in a country that treats six million foreigners as modern-day slaves, refuses Christians and Jews places of worship, and subjects its own women to second-class status. The king’s speeches gained coverage in the western media. But where it mattered, in Friday prayer gatherings inside the country, conservative clerics would undermine the king’s commitment among the population.
In a city as liberal as Jeddah, I regularly heard Friday sermons at vast gatherings where the preacher complained that human rights were, essentially, rights for homosexuals. In a country with a vibrant underground gay community, that accusation was serious for discrediting the king’s agenda among a wider conservative population. Six years later, human rights violations in Saudi Arabia remain daily occurrences (today’s court verdict is a case in point).
Based on that track record, such promises of voting in four years’ time carry little weight. If the king were serious, the change could be made much, much sooner. Moreover, how can women stand in municipal elections and campaign when it remains illegal for Saudi women to display their faces in public? Under strict Wahhabist rules, they must cover their faces in public. The nominal participation of women in elections is a cosmetic change when Saudi women are still segregated in public from men, cannot travel without male chaperones inside or outside of the country, cannot inherit at an equal rate to men, are not allowed to drive, and remain forbidden from pursuing most occupations.
Voting rights must come within a fuller and more urgent package of reform in Saudi Arabia. Changing Saudi male and clerical attitudes towards women helps the kingdom shift its approach towards scripture from literalism and rigidity to pluralism, depth, and context. This shift not only helps advance the status of Saudi women and therefore Saudi Arabia’s standing in the modern world, but it will also help heal the country’s many other ailments, including intolerance and extremism.