Saudi Arabia bows to pressure to reform and grants women the vote
The world’s last bastion against female suffrage bowed to the forces of change when Saudi Arabia granted its female population the right to vote for the first time.
The historic decision came after King Abdullah, the Saudi
ruler, conceded that a study of Muslim history had shown that women were capable of rational thinking and decision making.
“Muslim women in our Islamic history have demonstrated positions that expressed correct opinions and advice,” he told advisers.
Even in the Middle East, where women’s rights have lagged behind much of the rest of the world, Saudi Arabia has stood out as a reactionary citadel against the march of feminism.
Women have been denied the most basic of freedoms, forbidden from driving or leaving the country without the permission of a male guardian.
King Abdullah’s ruling appeared to show that even Saudi Arabia was not immune to the climate of greater openness and freedom being swept across the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Although the kingdom has escaped the populist demonstrations that have erupted elsewhere in the region, the king has come under pressure to make limited reforms if only to save his monarchy.
The announcement will not necessarily give women a powerful voice in the country. Saudi Arabia holds no elections beyond municipal level, with power almost exclusively restricted to the confines of the royal family.
But the decision to allow women both to vote in and contest municipal elections is an unprecedented gesture towards equality in Saudi Arabia.
In what could prove an even more significant step, the king also announced that women would be allowed to serve in the Shura Council, whose role is purely advisory but which nonetheless constitutes the most influential political body in the country outside the royal family. Until now, women had only been given a symbolic presence on the council.
“Because we refuse to marginalise women in society in all roles that comply with Sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior clerics and others, to involve women in the Shura Council as members starting from next term,” the king told the body.
“Women will be able to run as candidates to the municipal election and will even have a right to vote.”
The ageing king, rumours of whose period poor health have sparked concerns about the kingdom’s future, has been seen as a cautious reformer. His decision, which has been debated within the political elite for some months, could cause a backlash from within the traditionally hidebound religious establishment.
Seeing themselves as the custodians of the Islam’s holiest places -- Mecca and Medina -- the House of Saud has always been forced to rely on the goodwill of clerics from the puritanical Wahhabi strain of Islam to ensure its legitimacy.
Female activists in Saudi Arabia hailed the decision and vowed to step up their campaign to extend women’s rights in the kingdom.
“This is great news,” Waheja al-Huwaider, a Saudi writer and activist, said. “Women’s voices will finally be heard.
“Now it is time to remove other barriers like not allowing women to drive cars.”
Inspired by the Arab Spring, a number of women defied the driving ban by taking to the wheels of their husbands’ cars earlier this year, but the protest fizzled after a number of them were arrested.