King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia made history yet again by announcing that women will be allowed to vote and run for office in the Kingdom's municipal elections...and that they will be appointed as full members to the Kingdom's Consultative Shura Council. Though the issue of women driving isn't dealt with now, I believe we must look at this historic step with the 'glass is half full' attitude. Now that women will be on the Shura Council they will be able to discuss the women driving issue and bring forth other major women's rights issues such as the 'guardianship' law question.
The media is reporting this all over - I'm including the LA Times story - it seems the most nuanced and quotes Lubna Hussain. The story is pasted in below and a link to it is here
Reforms will allow women to vote but not drive - Jeffrey Fleishman
REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- King Abdullah of Saudi
Arabia surprised his ultraconservative nation Sunday by announcing bold
reforms that for the first time give women the right to vote, run for
local office and serve on the Shura Council, the king’s advisory board.
measures by an aging monarch who has battled Islamic hard-liners for
years will marginally improve the standing of women in a country that
still forbids them from driving or leaving the house without their faces
covered. The moves appear likely to enrage religious conservatives
while serving to advance at least a veneer of change in one of the
world’s most repressive states.
“Because we refuse to marginalize
women in society in all roles that comply with sharia [Islamic law], we
have decided ... to involve women in the Shura Council as members,
starting from the next term,” the king said in a five-minute speech to
He added: “Women will be able to run as candidates” in the 2015 municipal election “and will even have a right to vote.”
announcement suggests that the ailing 87-year-old king seeks a legacy
as a reformer, despite making only modest inroads on human rights.
Abdullah built the country’s first coeducational university and has
granted 120,000 scholarships to Saudi students, many of them women, to
study outside the country. Each was opposed by clerics and religious
ultraconservatives in the royal family.
Allowing women to vote is “hugely significant,” said Lubna Hussain, a
Saudi writer. “The king is implementing the reform promises he made when
he became leader. It shows he is not willing to pander to religious
fundamentalists ... who are quite weakened and don’t seem to have the
voice they used to.”
The new rights for women come as Saudi
Arabia has bristled at demands for political freedoms that have spirited
rebellions across the Arab world and toppled such longtime allies of
the king as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. When rumblings of revolt
echoed in Saudi Arabia, the government, whose security forces are
omnipresent, promised $130 billion in salary raises and spending for
social and religious programs.
Such largesse and attempts at
modernization have kept Abdullah popular even while challenges to the
royal family have been quickly crushed. Saudi dissidents and human
rights groups have condemned the government for crackdowns that have
occasionally damaged the king’s image and led to criticism that his
family’s reliance on religious conservatives to stay in power makes him
too cautious a reformer.
The king is the counterbalance to
influential anti-reformist forces, including Prince Nayef ibn Abdulaziz,
the Saudi interior minister, who many believe may succeed Abdullah.
Nayef is sympathetic to fundamentalist Wahhabi clerics who uphold the
segregation of sexes and have resisted the monarch’s attempts at modest
reforms to ease religion's grip on schools, courts and other
Yet discriminatory laws, such as preventing women
from driving, have become an international embarrassment for the
kingdom, a key U.S. ally that relies on oil wealth to expand its
diplomatic stature. A number of women were arrested over the summer for
defying the driving ban. Analysts predicted that by allowing women to
vote the king has opened the possibility for wider rights debates.
others said the latest reforms were diversions that did little to
change the plight of women in a country where they can be beheaded for
adultery and cannot travel abroad without the permission of a male
“It’s a mixed feeling. On one hand he opens the door
for her and on the other hand she is still banned from driving,” said
Mohammad Fahd Qahtani, a college professor and human rights advocate.
“It doesn’t save her from horrible treatment by government agencies and
the courts. It’s a symbolic gesture but it is in no way enough to
improve the lives of women.”
He added: “These rights to vote are
still, if you see how it’s worded, are contingent on Islamic
jurisprudence. So we'll have to see in coming years what happens. The
devil could be in the details. But maybe it’ll get some international
praise for the regime.”
Sunday’s announcements “represent an
important step forward in expanding the rights of women in Saudi Arabia,
and we support King Abdullah and the people of Saudi Arabia as they
undertake these and other reforms,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the
U.S. National Security Council.
The change will not alter the
Saudi power structure. Municipal councils have little authority and only
half their members are elected. The Shura Council, a body akin to a
parliament but with no legislative power, advises the king on economic,
social and international affairs.
But liberals and activists believe that even a little nudge forward in the kingdom is significant.
almost like a watershed,” said Hussain, who has written eloquently over
the years on women’s rights. “You’ll now have women in [the Shura
Council] taking up women’s causes. Before it was men talking for us.
It’s quite revolutionary and it will open up a Pandora’s box.”