King Abdullah’s decree granting Saudi women political rights is seen by many as a milestone. By others, it is seen as not much of anything, given the limited political power of even Saudi men. Both are right to a degree.

Saudi society seems to want modernization, but without change. That, of course, is impossible. So figuring out which changes are acceptable is the issue. As a conservative society, even among the liberal modernists, change is hard to take sometimes. Society is based on rules that worked well for over 1,400 years, only to be increasingly challenged as modernization and change crept or swept in. Starting with the discovery and exploitation of oil in the late 1930s, Saudi society has been forced into adapting to a world it scarcely knew existed outside it borders. Cosmopolitan areas like the port cities of Jeddah and Dammam had always had relations with the outside world, as had Mecca and Medinah, destination cities for Muslim pilgrims from around the world. The interior, however, was pretty much shut off. When the new came there, it was shocking and often strongly resented. Radio, TV, women’s education, the Internet… these and much more were the subject of rejection, and often violent protest. While the medium might have been seen as utilitarian progress, what it brought with it was not always welcome and was often feared.

The Saudi government, while a monarchy, is far from an ‘absolute’ monarchy. The King cannot simply issue a decree and be done with it. Instead, he has to find consensus among different power groups: the Al-Saud family, the religious establishment, the merchants, the tribes, the technocrats. Each of these groups has its own agenda – often competitive and contradictory – and their interests have to be considered, their consent received before a decree is issued. This is a traditional form of checks and balances, but since it is not operating from a written constitution, it moves in staggers and halts. Change comes to Saudi Arabia at a glacial pace, if not a geologic pace. But change, like a glacier, moves ever onward.

Below is an assortment of assessments of the King’s decree, some positive, some not.

Christian Science Monitor has an editorial that approves:

Women’s voting rights in Saudi Arabia: a blow to medieval brands of Islam

The status of women in Saudi Arabia has long been a bellwether of the power of Islamic fundamentalists worldwide. More freedom for Saudi women would mean less intolerance for certain brands of the Muslim faith.

Well, chalk one up for a tolerant Islam, the kind that respects universal values such as gender equality.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy announced that women would be allowed to vote in the kingdom’s very limited democracy – municipal elections – as well as run for local offices. And they could also become members of a body that advises the king.

The timing of this royal decree is telling.

It comes nine months after the start of the Arab Spring, which has so far toppled three dictators; six months after the killing of Osama bin Laden, whose goal was to control Islam’s holy sites in Saudi Arabia; and three months after an embarrassing protest in which dozens of Saudi women defied the fatwas of conservative clerics by driving cars.

King Abdullah’s edict granting limited political rights for women shows that ideas such as universal suffrage may yet win out against Saudi Arabia’s state-sponsored creed, known as Wahhabi Islam.

The Washington Post‘s On Religion section offers a ‘guest voice’ saying that Saudi women believe this is a huge step, even if it doesn’t solve all the problems women face:

Women react after Saudi King gives them the right to vote
Fahad Faruqui

Erum al-Howaish, like many young women from conservative Saudi Arabia, expects King Abdullah’s watershed decision last Sunday to allow women to vote and run in elections to be the start of a new phase of women’s rights reforms.

The 21-year-old politics student in London reacted with jubilation at the king’s decree, which will allow women to take seats in the Shura Council, which advises the monarchy.

“The king’s realizing that the women’s voices are vital in the political process means a lot to me,” said al-Howaish, who broke into tears after reading the news on Twitter while grocery shopping.

Also at The Post, conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin finds the decree wanting. Apparently, because the decree did not vault Saudi Arabia into the most liberal of democracies, it doesn’t count…

Saudi women can now vote: Hardly a reason to celebrate
Jennifer Rubin

When I saw headlines proclaiming the great Saudi “reform” — allowing women the right to vote — I had to laugh. Or cry. If you live in an Islamic, authoritarian state with an atrocious record on human rights, is voting really all that meaningful?

Saudi Arabia, as our own State Department explains: “is a monarchy ruled by the Al Saud family. .?.?. The government bases its legitimacy on its interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) and the 1992 Basic Law. The Basic Law sets out the system of governance, rights of citizens, and powers and duties of the government. The law also provides that the Qur’an and the Traditions (Sunna) of the Prophet Muhammad serve as the country’s constitution. .?.?. Citizens did not have the right to change their government peacefully.” They also don’t have the right of free speech, assembly, or any other political rights we associate with a free country.

The conservative Weekly Standard goes to Saudi-critic Stephen Schwartz (and Ifran Al-Alawi) to point out how limited the decree actually is:

Saudi Arabia Grants Women Limited Election Rights
Stephen Schwartz & Ifran Al-Alawi

On September 25, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia made world headlines by proclaiming the right of his female subjects to nominate and compete as candidates in municipal elections. The king also pledged to appoint women to the country’s 150-member, unelected “shura council,” or executive consultative body. The decision coincided with weekend celebrations of Saudi National Day, which commemorates the foundation of the state by King Abd Al-Aziz Ibn Saud in 1932, and falls officially on September 23. But the new rules for female electoral participation will not apply on Thursday, September 29. when the desert realm holds the second nationwide polling in its recent history.

As with other events in the current panorama of revolution, reform, and repression in the Arab countries, the Saudi decision has elicited contradictory analyses. The unexpected royal proclamation provides only that introduction of women into the shura council will begin with the institution’s following term, in 2013. Women may nominate and run as candidates in municipal balloting beginning with its next round, in 2015.

Euronews finds mixed reactions:

Mixed reactions to Saudi move on women’s vote

Human rights campaigners have welcomed the move by Saudi Arabia to give women the right to vote and stand in local elections.

It is being hailed as a breakthrough even though it will be four years before it takes effect, and other areas of discrimination remain in place.

For some, this first step will oblige Islamic conservatives to listen to voices other than their own.

“I think by these decisions Saudi women will be allowed for the first time in Saudi history since the establishment of Saudi Arabia to have a space for political participation,” said Dr Fawziyah Abu Khalid, a woman doing a PhD in Political Sociology at King Saud University in the capital Riyadh.

Women will also be eligible for appointment to the unelected advisory Shura Council.

Prof. Juan Cole, expert on Shi’ism and frequent commentator on the region, finds the measure good, but not enough:

Saudi Women’s Vote: Does it Go Far Enough?
Juan Cole

The surprise announcement on Sunday by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that women will be allowed to vote in and run for office in the municipal elections scheduled in four years is another sign of the pressure the kingdom is under to reform. Although this announcement wasn’t anticipated, it comes as a result in part of nearly a decade of women’s activism, beginning with a January 2003 petition from Saudi women demanding their political rights. The recent Facebook campaign for driving rights for women, and the act of civil disobedience by some 80 or so in daring to drive, probably helped impel the king to make this decision.

Treatment of women in Saudi Arabia has much more to do with Gulf customs and feelings about gender segregation and male honor being invested in protecting the chastity of the family’s women than it has to do with Islam. The Qur’an sees women as spiritually equal to men. One of the prophet’s wives later led a battle, so women in early Islam were hardly shrinking lilies. Islamic law gives women extensive property rights (unlike in Europe, women did not lose control of their property to their husbands when they married). The real question is whether the Gulf societies can, after 1400 years, catch up to the rights granted women in Islam.

American broadcaster National Public Radio (NPR) goes to Ahmed Al-Omran – Saudi Jeans – who finds excitement, but also regret at the pace of change:

‘Surprise And Excitement’: Saudi Women React To Voting Rights Decision
Ahmed Al-Omran

Back in June, we talked to women in Saudi Arabia who were defying a nation-wide ban that keeps them from driving. At the time that seemed like a small step needed toward the goal of greater equality for women.

But this past Sunday something surprising happened. King Abdullah addressed the consultative Shoura Council and said women will be allowed for the first time to join the unelected parliament, vote and run for municipal councils. The announcement represents the biggest change for women in the conservative Kingdom since the introduction of girls education in 1960.

Many of the critiques point out that Saudi women still aren’t permitted to drive. They seem unaware that women’s driving is a bigger issue for non-Saudis than it is for Saudi women. Yes, many Saudi women would like to drive, as would their husbands who have to leave work to do chauffeuring. But it is not the most important issue for Saudi women. Political rights are far higher on the list, as is the issue of guardianship, something that gravely limits women’s power. The list, in fact, is a long one. But a major item has now been checked off and that cannot be anything other than a very good thing.


September:28:2011 - 08:02 | Comments & Trackbacks (14) | Permalink
14 Responses to “The King’s Speech: Reactions”
  1. 1
    Sparky Said:
    September:28:2011 - 11:03 

    For me I liken it to

    “One small step for man(excuse the pun) one large step for mankind (humankind)”

  2. 2
    Dakota Said:
    September:28:2011 - 14:13 

    All I know is, on Sept. 24 Sparky sent out Kumbayah Rays into the universe, on Sept. 25 women got the vote. I’m beginning to see a pattern here. :)

  3. 3
    Sparky Said:
    September:28:2011 - 15:58 

    Thanks Dakota but it is always Purely coincidental I assure you :-) Admittingly my passion and madness gets the best of me sometimes and I like to wish I had some sort of superpowers.

    However, I do believe we are in an energy based world and when I feel the power I feel the power! All I can say is I felt it…

  4. 4
    Sandy Said:
    September:29:2011 - 04:17 

    Many of the “rules” that have worked for hundreds of years are in fact pretty new. Saudi was well on it’s way to a normal modernization when extremism got control in the ’70′s.

    Also, driving to Saudi women is extremely important. It’s always outsiders or women with drivers who think it isn’t. And it is completely intertwined with the guardian issue.

    Given that there are only random elections every few years and that women still live under the fear they can be lashed if they drive, many here are totally underwhelmed by what has happened.

  5. 5
    John Burgess Said:
    September:29:2011 - 06:40 

    @Sandy: There are countless article in the Saudi media reporting Saudi women saying that driving isn’t the top issue, that political rights and guardianship are. This is not from the women who seem to believe everyone can afford a staff of chauffeurs, but from those who are looking to speed up reforms. They, in fact, say that Western women are making a bigger deal of driving that it should be.

    Yes, Saudi Arabia took a different path starting in 1979. Getting back on the original track shouldn’t take 30 years, but it’s going to take time.

  6. 6
    Sandy Said:
    September:29:2011 - 07:37 

    @John,
    Yes the Saudi women that get media access are more likely to say that. And they all have drivers. The media might try asking women who don’t have drivers (the majority of women) how important it might be. And everyone is well aware it would be a wedge into breaking up the guardian system. (some) Women who have drivers, women who want to give Saudi “face” and women who believe they should be subservient are pretty much the only ones who don’t think its very important.

    Equal political rights with men is probably the least important issue. How many elections have there been? 3? Driving is everyday, highly visible and more practically can effect the lives of women. Fair treatment in the courts and guardianship is of course very important. And driving ties into that more directly. Everyone knows how important driving is here. They wouldn’t sentence women to lashing if it wasn’t. And women wouldn’t keep driving if it weren’t. Two more this week just since the announcements.

  7. 7
    John Burgess Said:
    September:29:2011 - 08:29 

    No, I’m specifically not talking about the ones who see no problem because they can afford to avoid the problem. I’m talking about the ones who complain about the cost of hiring drivers, but still see bigger issues that need to be addressed first.

    I would absolutely argue that political rights–even if their utility is limited at the moment–are far more important than the convenience and economics of driving. Once they have access to the levers of power, Saudi women will change the status quo.

  8. 8
    Sandy Said:
    September:30:2011 - 10:45 

    A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Women will participate in FUTURE elections- how far into the future, no one can say. And what power they have to change things-even then remains to be seen. Elections do not mean there is democracy- nor to they necessarily grant anyone any human rights, or access to any levers of power. In fact, a majority rule without minority rights can be totally oppressive as history shows us.

    Meaningful change would have been driving rights, or freedom from the mehram system.

    I’m not saying there is no benefit here- there is. But not anything like what the situation needs. And I think the Saudi women you are reading in the press- well good for them. I guess things are going their way then. And I’ll bet that even while they complain about the cost of hiring drivers- they’re not doing without one.

    Have you seen the cartoon that is circulating everywhere? It takes place several years in the future and one Saudi woman asks another if she voted- and she said “no” because her husband wouldn’t drive her. THAT’S how many see this.

  9. 9
    GWOT weekly round-up (September 30) | Global War on Terror Blog Series Pinged With:
    September:30:2011 - 11:28 

    [...] Arabia rounds-up the reaction to the declaration that Saudi women will be allowed to vote in elections (in four years’ [...]

  10. 10
    Sparky Said:
    October:01:2011 - 10:58 

    Saudi women especially need to get into the mind set of “yo I can vote because I am full human being” after that maybe they will then have the nerve to push for further rights along the lines of “hmmm if I can vote…why can’t I…xyz

    It is a working or massaging of the mindset first, so I think King Abdullah’s decision was major even more so than (a practical and useful decision I agree Sandy) allowing women to drive.

  11. 11
    Sooda12 Said:
    October:02:2011 - 09:17 

    Yes, Saudi Arabia lapsed into conservative and rigid mode around 1979.. but its back on track.

    I think when Prince Salman’s 100 new Highway Plazas are completed women will be driving.

    Saudi Arabia has had excellent leadership for decades… and King Abdullah is no exception.

    For those of us who remember Saudi Arabia in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.. we are astonished at how far they have come. There were no roads, telephones, radios, hospitals, universities etc. Eye disease was normal, polio was rampant, and 98% of the babies had malaria.

    Every monarch has cautiously pushed them towards modernity. .. and kept the country stable.

    What the SAG cannot do is push the people faster than they are ready for change or in defiance of faith, culture and tradition.

    From my perspective the Saudi people have a great deal of confidence in their leadership … and rightfully so.

    For 70 years the Al Saud have dedicated themselves to insuring the social and economic progress of the kingdom.

  12. 12
    Dakota Said:
    October:02:2011 - 17:48 

    We in the West are sometimes disappointed when Arabs ignore values like rule of law that we hold so dear and go straight for what we consider to be bubblegum issues – emulating Hollywood, for example. Taken at face value, driving a car seems like merely a question of style that energizes Saudi women almost as much as cruising on Talia street. On the social networking pages, they do spend some energy worrying about such things as what to wear when driving. (Answer: scarf and bug-eye sunglasses.)

    But think of how the women’s movement in the U.S lost momentum when it focused entirely on the vote, believing the vote would solve all the other issues. Fifty years later there were still numerous problems with property rights for married women, employment issues, on and on. Might as well put all their cards on the table at this point and wish for everything. If the Saudi women think driving is important, and maybe even exciting, who should know better than them?

  13. 13
    Sandy Said:
    October:03:2011 - 05:46 

    Bubble gum issue? Cruising Tahlia? I know women that work long hours and days who spend a sizable chunk of their income paying for transport to and from work. I know women who become stuck out on roads without a ride- Saudi women know this issue will not solve everything. But it WILL solve some things and physical freedom to be able to not be stuck in ones home, day in and day out is significant for many of them.

  14. 14
    Dakota Said:
    October:03:2011 - 10:56 

    The price of gas is so cheap here that men who drive often don’t realize how expensive cabs can be and how much women must pay for transportation. A one-way cab ride halfway across Riyadh can cost $8-12. Compare that to, say, a $3 one-way bus or train ticket including transfers or a $5 weekend all-you-can-ride card in a major American city. Alternatively, if someone has a regular trusted driver they can call, they may pay $12 an hour to be driven around for various errands. A morning’s errands can cost $50 for transportation alone.

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