Saudi Arabian women will be allowed to vote, run in local elections, and sit on the Majlis Al-Shura — a consultative body whose members, appointed by the king, advise him on public policy issues but have no real power. The changes, which will go into effect for the kingdom’s 2015 local elections, do not apply to the municipal elections scheduled for this Thursday, finally coming to life after more than two years of delays. Thursday’s vote will be the second set of elections held in Saudi Arabia since 1963.
Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a leading Saudi women’s rights activist, finds King Abdullah’s actions empty of conviction, arguing that the upcoming elections could have been slightly delayed in order to allow women to participate. “For the Shura council it’s another year and a half, for the municipal election it’s another four years — anything could happen during that time.… Whatever can be given can be taken,” she said.
The right to vote is by far the biggest change introduced by Abdullah, who has lead the country since 1995. However, Saudi activists have long called for greater rights for women who, under law, are second class citizens. Women can be flogged for adultery and are barred from traveling, working, or proceeding with medical operations without the permission of a male relative. Saudi Arabia is also the only country in the world to ban both native and foreign women from driving, forcing families to hire live-in drivers for $300-400 a month or rely on male relatives to drive the women to work, school, stores, or the doctor. Indeed, just two days after King Abdullah’s announcement, a Saudi woman was sentenced to 10 lashes for driving.
The U.S. State Department’s human rights report on Saudi Arabia, published in 2011, emphasizes the kingdom’s women’s rights abuses, ingrained in Saudi law. For example, according to the report, “By law a female rape victim is at fault for illegal ‘mixing of genders’ and is punished along with the perpetrator,” and women “face discrimination in courts, where the testimony of one man equals that of two women.”
As keeper of Islam’s holiest sites at Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia is provided with a unique status and legitimacy in the Muslim world. That legitimacy, perpetuated by revenue sustained through oil, grants Saudi Arabia the ability and financial means to advance its ultra conservative branch of Salafiyyah Islam and promote anti-western, anti-modern ideals. While ‘promising’ women the right to vote in the next election demonstrates progress, the Saudi kingdom must take greater steps to reverse its status as a prominent human rights transgressor.