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:
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:
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
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:
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:
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:
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.