Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah announced today that Saudi women will be able to vote and run in local elections for the first time…but not until 2015. Except for the tiny Asian sultanate of Brunei, Saudi Arabia is the last majority-Muslim nation to grant women the right to vote.
According to the Washington Post:
For the nation’s women, it is a giant leap forward, though they remain unable to serve as Cabinet ministers, drive or travel abroad without permission from a male guardian.
Saudi women bear the brunt of their nation’s deeply conservative values, often finding themselves the target of the unwanted attention of the kingdom’s intrusive religious police, who enforce a rigid interpretation of Islamic Shariah law on the streets and public places like shopping malls and university campuses.
In itself, Sunday’s decision to give the women the right to vote and run in municipal elections may not be enough to satisfy the growing ambition of the kingdom’s women who, after years of lavish state spending on education and vocational training, significantly improved their standing but could not secure the same place in society as that of their male compatriots.
But while it may be the right thing to do, the King isn’t rushing into anything so dangerously modern as equal rights:
That women must wait four more years to exercise their newly acquired right to vote adds insult to injury since Sunday’s announcement was already a long time coming — and the next local elections are in fact scheduled for this Thursday.
“Why not tomorrow?” asked prominent Saudi feminist Wajeha al-Hawaidar. “I think the king doesn’t want to shake the country, but we look around us and we think it is a shame … when we are still pondering how to meet simple women’s rights.”
…“We didn’t ask for politics, we asked for our basic rights. We demanded that we be treated as equal citizens and lift the male guardianship over us,” said Saudi activist Maha al-Qahtani, an Education Ministry employee who defied the ban on women driving earlier this year. “We have many problems that need to be addressed immediately.”
To be fair, granting unequal suffrage is not unique to Saudi Arabia. When Great Britain first allowed women to vote in 1918, it selectively enfranchised only women over the age of 30 who met certain property-holding qualifications. It wasn’t until a decade later that all women gained the right to vote at age 21, the same as men. Granting partial civil rights is an old stalling tactic meant to dampen down what political leaders know to be inevitable: yes, you can have change…not yet, but soon. Now won’t you please settle down?
As a tactic, it rarely works for long. In a country like Saudi Arabia, whose royal family is rattled by the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring and wants to maintain something of the external appearance of a modern nation, the promise to give the vote to the nation’s women in four years might buy them a little more time with the status quo. But I suspect it will only encourage women to fight harder for full political and social equality, and this concession from the King is likely to be used as the thin end of the wedge.