Saudi women surprised as king grants them right to vote
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
Women across Saudi Arabia were pleasantly surprised on 25 September when King Abdullah announced in a five-minute speech televised live that he was granting women the right to vote in future municipal elections, the right to run as candidates, and that they would be appointed to the Shoura Council, the 150-member body that advises the king on legislation and policy.
“I think this is a great step. It is definitely the beginning of the involvement of women in the political process, even if some say the municipal councils don’t have much power,” said Abeer Mishkhas, a Saudi journalist based in London, who has written extensively about the problems that Saudi women face.
“I had lost all hope in reform. But I see a ray of light. When will the summer begin?” tweeted Nawwarah Ashad of Al-Khobar.
“We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society and in every aspect, within the rules of Shariah,” said Abdullah, who is an absolute monarch. “Muslim women in our Islamic history have demonstrated positions that expressed correct opinions and advice,” he added, noting that the members of Saudi Arabia’s clerical council, or Ulema, had praised and supported his decision.
Despite these new rights, Saudi women still face many restrictions in the extremely conservative kingdom, which follows a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, such as not being allowed to drive, or to travel abroad or open a bank account without the written permission of a male guardian.
Women pushing for the right to drive started a defiance campaign this year across the country by taking to the streets and driving cars. Several were arrested, but the campaign gained much support through social networks on the Internet, including on Facebook and Twitter, especially after several of the women filmed themselves driving and posted the videos on YouTube.
Although there is no law that actually bans women from driving in Saudi Arabia, rigid social customs have not allowed Saudi women so far to claim their right to drive. Najla Hariri, a Jeddah resident who repeatedly drove in that city and was briefly detained on 24 August for doing so, was informed on 26 September that the authorities were pressing charges against her and that she would face trial.
But not all Saudi women were happy with the king’s news. Madawi Al-Rasheed, professor of social anthropology at King’s College in London, and the author of A History of Saudi Arabia, said she felt the announcement was superficial, aimed merely at appeasing those pushing for more substantial change.
“This is a typical reaction to the Arab Spring. Instead of promising real political participation in an elected Shoura Council, the king used the issue of women to create an illusion of reform,” said Al-Rasheed. “In a society where all are disenfranchised, the appointment of women becomes yet another propaganda move. This gives the impression that we have only a women’s problem in Saudi Arabia, nothing else,” she explained.
All 150 members of the Shoura Council are appointed by the king, and serve four-year terms that are renewable. They cannot veto legislation and have no binding powers. In 2006, six women were appointed as advisers to the Shoura, and now number 12, though they do not currently have the right to vote.
Yet, other analysts of the kingdom’s glacial speed of change said that King Abdullah’s announcement was good news that heralded the improvement of women’s status in the country.
“There had been so many pressures from women’s groups. It’s a continuous process of modernization. This will ease the government’s path to improving the condition of women in other areas,” said Jamal Khashoggi, general manager of the Al-Arab News Channel. “Consensus is always sought, in order not to upset the conservatives, but sometimes the ruler must intervene and take the lead, This happened with King Faisal when he introduced public education for girls and television in the 1960s, and this is happening now with King Abdullah,” he said, adding, “there are conservatives that will always scream ‘wolf!’ when change happens, and we have to reassure them that Saudi Arabia won’t become an open place where women are exploited.”
Indeed, when the government announced in 2004 that municipal elections would be held the following year, for the first time since 1963, at least five women announced their candidacies to seats on councils. They were encouraged by the initial announcement that used gender-neutral language, which did not clearly indicate whether women would be allowed to vote or not. After several months, the government claimed that a lack of polling stations and the fact that only 50 per cent of Saudi women at the time had photo ID-cards, meant that they would be excluded from the 2005 polls.
Half of the positions on the 178 councils across Saudi Arabia are up for grabs in this year’s election, which finally takes place on 29 September, after being postponed indefinitely by the government in 2009 without much explanation. The government appoints the other half of the members. Women will only be able to vote in the 2015 elections.
Robert Lacey, the British author of Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia, said he believes King Abdullah is a true reformer and that he has used the upheavals across the Middle East of the Arab Spring as a pretext for pushing for more reform.
“The king has welcomed the Arab Spring as providing impetus for the reforms for which he has long campaigned,” said Lacey. “He is a genuine reformer who has been fighting for change in this highly conservative society for many years. He obviously believes in the power of his family, but the record shows that he also believes in the power of his people to bring the kingdom up to date.”
Now that women have been given access to the political process, some analysts hope that a fair representation of Saudi women from all walks of life will be given a voice in the municipal and Shoura councils.
“In the Shoura Council I think women will apply much needed pressure to highlight issues that are important to them, with driving as just one example,” explained Mishkhas. “My only concern is that since women will be appointed to the Shoura, they will be more prone to being ‘political choices’, where only women from the upper class and with PhDs will be appointed and consequently won’t represent concerns of women from all parts of society.”
“Like Saudi men, Saudi women are a diverse group. Their perspectives and concerns vary across class, region, tribe and sect. It is important that this diversity is represented,” said Toby Craig Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, and the author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.
“Historically, however, Saudi Arabia’s social complexity has not been reflected in its appointed institutions. Rather, the royal family has used such appointments to reward friends and allies. If they continue with this pattern, it would be disappointing but not surprising,” added Jones.
Khashoggi said that he believes that the king took a bolder step in allowing women to vote and serve in positions of leadership, rather than allowing them to drive, because this touches on the Islamic concept of “wilayat al-Faqih” or Guardianship of the Scholars, which does not allow women to rule over Muslim nations. “The concept of ‘wilayat’ is very sensitive, so allowing women in political roles was more brave than allowing them to drive,” he said.
Nevertheless, the ironic contradiction of allowing women the right to seek political office but not to drive, was not lost on some Saudi women, who questioned the continued enforcement of the “mahram” or male guardianship system, which highly restricts the freedom of movement of all Saudi women.
“Do women need a guardian’s approval before applying for membership of the council? Or to vote? Or to travel with parliamentary delegations? Just questions inspired by the events,” wrote Maram Meccawy, a Saudi columnist, on her Twitter account.
Human Rights Watch noted in a statement this week that Saudi Arabia promised the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2009 that it would abolish the male guardianship system “but has yet to do so.”
“King Abdullah’s promise that women will finally be allowed to vote is a welcome move away from the discrimination and exclusion that Saudi women have suffered for so long,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
In political terms, waiting four years until they can vote in 2015 is going to be an eternity for Saudi women, who will most likely face a backlash from conservatives opposed to them gaining these new rights. King Abdullah is 87 years old and his successors are known to be less liberal, which means that Saudi women will face a long, bumpy and uncertain road.