Women’s Suffrage in Saudi Arabia

In an unexpected move, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah granted women the right to vote, run in municipal elections, and participate as voting members on the Shura Council, King Abdullah’s advisory body. This move has been widely praised as a long-overdue victory for the women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia, a traditionally conservative Islamic nation.

King Abdullah announced his decision on Sunday, September 25, during a short address to the Shura Council in Riyadh. He cited the place “that Muslim women have had in the Islamic history,” going as far as refusing to continue “to marginalize the role of women in…Saudi society.” King Abdullah emphasized that his decision was in line with Islamic sharia law, pre-empting the subsequent objections raised by the country’s conservative religious scholars, who largely oppose the enfranchisement of women.

Saudi women now have the right to vote and run for civil office. (image courtesy of bikyamasr.com)

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (King Abdullah’s official title) has previously made small inroads for women’s rights, naming Norah al-Fayez as deputy education minister in 2009, the first woman to be a minister in Saudi Arabia. That appointment was followed just months later by the opening of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), the country’s first coeducational university. The university has been praised as an important step towards modernization, a veritable oasis where women can mix freely with men, drive on campus, and do not have to wear veils. The religious police, a bastion of the kingdom’s ingrained conservative society, do not operate on-site.

And yet, despite these advancements, critics of King Abdullah remain skeptical. The reform does not go into effect until the 2015 election cycle. Furthermore, the government considered granting women voting power in 2009’s elections, but the elections were subsequently delayed until this past week, with women once again being excluded from the polls. In Saudi Arabia, citizens can only elect half the members of roughly 300 municipal councils, with the other half appointed by the government. And, these councils exist for purely advisory purposes in Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies.

Coming on the heels of the Arab Spring, King Abdullah’s reforms have been viewed as an attempt to appease activists and stave off unrest. Others believe that the 87 year-old monarch is simply trying to establish a legacy as a reformer and advocate for human rights as he draws closer to his death. Critics point to the ruling Al-Saud family’s monopoly on top government posts and the regime’s tendency to unilaterally crush political dissent as evidence that significant progress is a long way away.

Specifically in the context of women’s rights, much more needs to be done. Women are required to have a male guardian, effectively reducing them to the status of minors. Saudi women cannot play sports in public, with Saudi Arabia being just one of three countries (joining Qatar and Brunei) that has not sent women to the Olympics. Many businesses refuse to employ women, with women making up only 14% of the workforce. It was not until 2010 that female lawyers could practice, and, even so, they can only practice in special courts where they can only represent other women. Gender segregation is so pervasive that the government’s stated reason for delaying enfranchisement until 2015 was that they logistically could not set up separate polling stations for women in time for Thursday’s elections.

In what is perhaps the most publicized element of Saudi Arabian discrimination, women are forbidden to drive. In June, women peacefully protested the ban by driving, with their demonstrations of civil disobedience attracting international attention. Just days after Abdullah’s decree, a Saudi Arabian court sentenced a woman to 10 lashes for driving, the first time a court had officially passed down a verdict on the socially-enforced law, likely an instance of conservative backlash against King Abdullah’s reforms.

But in yet another sign that Saudi Arabian women have cause to be cautiously optimistic, King Abdullah revoked the sentence, winning him even more praise amongst activists. Though the road to equality will be a long one, Saudi Arabian women, perhaps with some help from King Abdullah, have the drive to achieve their goals.

Tim Reynolds has served as the Port Side's Editor-in-Chief and Web Editor. A senior English major at Pomona College, Tim can be found working with students in Pomona's Writing Center. Email him at tjr12011@pomona.edu.

2 Responses to “Women’s Suffrage in Saudi Arabia”

  1. SaudiMedic says:

    That is great news for Saudi Women. I read a great book about an American Paramedic that worked for King Abdullah, It was called “Paramedic to the Prince” Although it tells of the many injustices in that country. He seems to write fondly of King Abdullah. The book is a great read for anyone wanting an inside look into Saudi Arabia

  2. chibaby igwe says:

    i agreed with d sir saudi arabic abudillsah on what he said. This is becos we are in d democracy word, we have freedo; of speech, and we not on bondage again. So everybody have rigjht but men and women to participating om voting. Thanlks.

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