It's big news. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia made an announcement yesterday that Saudi women will be allowed to vote and run for office in the next municipal elections in 2015. In a country where women cannot drive, are legally considered children their entire lives, and must have their male guardian's approval to do things like travel, get an education, or work, getting the right to vote may sound like a really big victory for Saudi women on the surface. Outwardly to the rest of the world, this may seem like a major development, but before we get too excited, in actuality, is it really?
I hate to put a damper on this astounding development or to minimize the strides King Abdullah has taken in support of women, but I can't help but wonder exactly how big of a step this action really is? Now don't get me wrong - I was thrilled when I read the news. But let's face it. Saudi Arabia is a "KINGDOM." Political parties do not exist in Saudi Arabia because they are not allowed. What kind of power are the people in a kingdom like Saudi Arabia really given? Let's examine that.
Do you know how many "elections" there have been in Saudi Arabia's history? Three! These elections have occurred sporadically, about every 30 or 40 years! There were initially elections in 1939, then in the 1950s, and then not again until 2005. And yes, each time only Saudi men were allowed to vote in these elections. Another election had been slated for 2009, but it was cancelled. These are municipal elections that decided local governmental positions - not laws or rights or policies, and certainly not higher up national government positions. Important government positions are all appointed by the King, and most are filled by his closest, most loyal, and most trusted male relatives.
The part of the King's announcement that I was actually more excited to read about was that women would now be appointed to the Shoura Council - which has been made up of 90 male members appointed by the King. However, the Shoura Council serves only as an advisory board and has no real power at all to enact anything. While influential, all they really do is discuss issues and make recommendations. I was pleased when I read that the Shoura Council "applauded" the King for giving women the opportunity to be appointed to the council. I can only hope that the women who will be appointed to these positions will be effective, forward thinking, and will truly represent the issues, needs, and the desires of Saudi women.
King Abdullah was quoted as saying: "Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Shariah, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulema and others to involve women in the Shoura Council as members, starting from the next term." I just have to ask, exactly what do they think they have been doing all these years, if not "marginalizing" women in KSA society? What about refusing to allow women to drive - isn't that marginalizing women? Or requiring women to have a legal guardian all their lives - marginalizing women or not? Not allowing women to leave the country without her male guardian's approval? Refusing a woman admittance into court without her legal male guardian? Discounting a woman's testimony in court just because she is a woman? Shall I go on?
I remember the excitement in the air when in 2009 the country's first female Deputy Minister of Education, Nora Al Faiz, was appointed with the creation of a newly formed branch specifically for female students. This too was big news because no woman had ever before held a position in Saudi Arabia's government. Controversy immediately arose, however, when the appointee's photo of her uncovered face appeared in the newspaper. Really? Yes, this was scandalous. Many Saudi women wear veils and never show their faces in public. So how does she work with her all male colleagues and underlings in this society where gender mixing, even at work, is prohibited or discouraged by the religion? Why, via closed circuit television, of course! One can only wonder exactly how effective this veiled woman on closed circuit TV can be with this type of set up. But with people focusing on insignificant matters like a photo of her showing her face, instead of the real issues regarding girls' education in Saudi Arabia, how much will she be able to accomplish? Only time will tell.
Also discouraging was the fact that on the very same day this historic proclamation granting Saudi women the right to vote was announced, Saudi activist Najalaa Harir had to appear in court on charges of "driving while female." This is yet another example of how Saudi Arabia famously manages to take "One step forward and two steps back" at the same time.
As I see it, Saudi Arabia still remains very much a man's world. These teeny baby steps come much too slowly for me.
Or as one Saudi woman, alfadlmiranda, tweeted, "Will soon be selling t-shirts in #Saudi that read: Other countries went through the Arab Spring and all i got was this crummy voting right"
Rob L Wagner's post "Saudi Arabia’s Municipal Elections: Tough Lessons Learned from Islamic Conservatives" - an interesting and in depth look at Saudi elections and politics.
TNT Magazine article "Saudi Women Win Right to Vote" - Also TNT photo credit of Saudi women marching with flag
Saudi Woman's post "Prominent Saudis: Mrs. Nora Al Faiz" - written when Al Faiz was newly appointed to her Ministry position.