Last Updated: Thursday, 24 April 2014, 11:39 GMT

Getting the vote could herald real change for Saudi women

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Author Nadya Khalife
Publication Date 29 September 2011
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Getting the vote could herald real change for Saudi women, 29 September 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e85a8242.html [accessed 25 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In a surprise move, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz has announced that women will be able to participate in municipal elections in 2015. He also announced that women may become full voting members of the consultative Shura council. While this is extraordinary news for Saudi women, their participation in the country's public life is long overdue.

The Saudi government has a long history of breaking promises to women. This year has been no different. When Saudi Arabia held its first municipal elections in 2005, women were excluded from voting and running as candidates. The government promised that women would be able to participate in the next elections, which were scheduled for 2009. The government reneged on this promise and again excluded women from the elections, which, after a two-year postponement, are to take place next week. A woman from Jeddah who attempted to register to vote was arrested for her trouble.

The Shura council, which women may now join as full voting members, is an appointed body that has the authority to review legislation and question ministers, but whose powers remain consultative. In 2006, the Shura council appointed six women as members, but they were not allowed to vote. The number has now risen to 12. Now these women will at least be able to participate fully as the Shura council scrutinises proposed legislation and formulates recommendations.

Women are still not allowed to drive despite bold opposition by some women, which included posting pictures of themselves driving on YouTube and Facebook. The male guardianship system, which deprives women of the right to make decisions about almost all aspects of their lives, is still in place although the government promised the UN human rights council in 2009 that it would abolish the system.

Many women are sceptical about whether King Abdullah's announcement will translate into real change for Saudi women. But this time, I suspect, might be different.

The king is 87 and is not in the best health. He may be thinking about his legacy, and likening it to that of King Faisal, who introduced mandatory schooling for girls in the 1960s. King Abdullah's legacy could be that he gave Saudi women some of the basic rights and freedoms that have long been enjoyed by other women around the world. King Abdullah has a patchy history when it comes to women's rights, but he has encouraged education for women and their entry into the workforce. Women in Saudi Arabia can become teachers, doctors and engineers. The Saudi king has also made special provisions for women entrepreneurs so that they no longer need a male agent to facilitate registration of new businesses.

In 2010, the king permitted himself to be photographed with 35 women participants in the seventh National Dialogue Forum in Najran, which brought participants together to discuss healthcare services in the kingdom. The photograph, the first of its kind, was published on the front page of Okaz, a prominent local newspaper.

In the same year, the king also fired a cleric who had criticised gender mixing at a Saudi university and reinstated the chief of the religious police in Mekka, who had declared certain forms of gender mixing permissible. The prohibition of gender mixing has been a fundamental feature of Saudi society. Critics of the king continue to claim that allowing men and women to mix will lead to immoral or corrupt behaviour.

This latest announcement may be the clearest indication yet that the king is willing to take steps to eliminate at least some of the discrimination that Saudi women face in their daily lives. The king's abrupt announcement is also a signal to those who oppose women's participation in public life. If he makes good on his promises, they will have to get used to the sight of women voting, alongside men.

Despite this promising step, we won't know for sure whether this is indeed the beginning of the "Arab spring" for Saudi women. We will have to wait at least another four years to see whether Saudi women can actually cast their ballots. For Saudi Arabia to be taken seriously on the world stage with regard to women's rights, the government should keep its promise to let women vote. It should make other important changes to eliminate discrimination against women. At the top of the list should be ending the repressive guardianship system and the ban on women driving.

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