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On September 25, 2011, in what was a momentous shift from the ultra-conservative social traditions, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud granted the women of Saudi Arabia the right to vote. Women would also be deemed eligible to run in municipal elections, the king announced. The change has been welcomed by women all over the world and appreciated by the international community.

Background

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is known for the strict laws that dictate the lives of women in the country. In a society where a strict separation of sexes is the norm, women are legally prohibited from driving and being in public places unaccompanied by a male chaperone.

The country has been considered puritan by many women's organizations and demands for the empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia have been made for many decades now. The decision has been received as a limited, albeit significant initiative to provide the women of the country the equality that has been long overdue. Domestic pressure for liberalistic changes had been mounting and the demand for a government that represents and protects the interests of the Saudi women had been imminent.


The Decree

The King of Saudi Arabia decreed that women shall be allowed to vote from the next election cycle. They shall also be free to run in the country’s municipal elections. To ensure protection of their interests, women shall be inducted into the Majlis Al-Shoura, an advisory council which is consulted by the king on policy matters. The king made the announcement granting women these rights in a public address which was aired across the country. To grant the decision legitimacy and acceptance the king assured the people that the decision had been taken in consultation with senior Islamic scholars.

King Abdullah, the eighty-eight year old monarch, is known for his progressive reforms, often lacking the endorsement of other members of the royal family. The king said 'We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society'. The statement was considered a bold one as he said that the changes were subservient to Islamic laws and those who disagreed were ignorant.

Women from across the world hailed the decision as 'giant leap' on social media platforms such as Twitter.

What Spurred the Change?

The royal decree came in the face of escalating demands for the inclusion of women to the electorate of the country, a demand that cropped up in the spring of 2011. The sweeping Arab Spring uprisings and mounting international pressure seem to have precipitated the decision.

In recent years the residents of Saudi Arabia have been increasingly active on social media platforms and the presence of Saudi women is unmistakable. With exposure to global culture, the demand of Saudi women for equal rights can no longer be ignored.

Concerns and Criticism

The women of Saudi Arabia have expressed concerns about the royal decree. The earliest that the decision could translate into reality for the Saudi women is in 1915, when the country next goes to municipal polls. The decision to allow women to contest in the municipal election cannot be meaningful unless women are allowed to campaign for themselves without inhibitions. In the current scenario women need a male escort in public places and cannot drive. The 50 member Majlis Al-Shoura is a body without any executive authority and hence the induction of women into the council does not do much to secure their interests, activists feel.

The major concern, however, is if Saudi society is ready to accept the change. The women, traditionally dominated by the men of the household, may not participate for fear of ostracism. Despite the legal sanction the practical evolution of women’s equality still remains to be seen. With the women of the country often being denied access to public facilities such as restaurants and fitness clubs, participating in elections still seems a far cry.

With repeated assurances and decrees having failed to come to fruition due to the traditions and the staunch resistance to change that characterize the Wahhabi Islamic world, it is also feared that the execution of the decree may be watered down.

The move to appoint women to the Majlis Al-Shoura has also been criticized by some as a red herring. An increasing demand to elect the members of the Shoura Council has been avoided by announcing the induction of women. A number of conservatives in the country have severely criticized the move as 'un-Islamic'. The Demand for a Right to Drive

The other issue that has been vociferously advocated among Saudi women is their right to drive. Appointment of chauffeurs is a costly exercise in the country and women have protested the lack of a right for free movement. Najla al-Hariri, the strongest proponent of women's rights, was in detention even as the announcement was being made. The most influential religious clerics and members of the royal household are staunch opponents to the idea of women driving.

In all, the women of Saudi Arabia have welcomed the decision with much enthusiasm. It is believed that this is a sign of the conservative country waking to the age of women's liberation. 'We still need more rights' was the clear cry that resounded across the country, although in hushed tones. Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, is highly intolerant of criticism. It must be said that the reforms introduced by King Abdullah including the establishment of a co-educational university and the national identification cards for women have been very positive and welcome.

 

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