Feminism | Posted by Fiona L on 10/3/2011

Is Suffrage for Saudi Women Justice, or Just Words?

In a society where women can’t leave the house without their faces covered and aren’t allowed to drive, how much does the right to vote really mean?

Global pressures aided in getting women the right to vote and run for office in Saudi Arabia last week. Unfortunately, “the right to vote” is used very loosely when it comes to Saudi Arabian politics. With an intact monarchy, a tight set of laws based on religious texts, and a society which allows for few freedoms for women, Saudi Arabian King Abdullah’s promise that women will be able to further participate in politics rings a little bit empty to me.

First of all, what does it mean for women to “get the right to vote” or “run for office” in a country with a king? Second of all, are there more important things we should be worrying about here?

These are a lot of questions to tackle—questions that many Saudi Arabians have been pondering for years. To begin with, suffrage in Saudi Arabia means the right to participate in municipal elections. These elections are often for very small or insignificant positions. Not to mention that only half of the municipal government is elected—the other half is appointed.

Next, I can’t help but wonder how empowering it will feel for women to vote, when they have to be driven there by their husbands and must approach the voting booth with their faces covered—regardless of their religious affiliation or beliefs. Let alone how many women’s husbands or male family members will actually allow them to exercise their newfound right in a country where men are able to dictate most of the actions of women within their communities.

This brings me to another question: why did the King even give them the right? Word has it that King Abdullah wants to be known as a reformer. Although he certainly hasn’t made great strides against human rights violations in the past, King Abdullah did build the first coeducational university and has granted scholarships for women to study abroad.

While these actions are certainly a step forward, the main motive for reform seems to be to improve the King’s and country’s global image, rather than actual belief in reform. So, here’s my last question—I promise—is this a bad thing?

Leaders of nations act for a myriad of reasons, and one of the most popular reasons is global pressure. Some in Saudi Arabia say that the government is starting to feel uneasy and embarrassed about their Sharia-based laws, especially given the country’s relationships with Western countries such as the U.S. Some also say that King Abdullah is feeling the heat, so to speak, of the Arab Spring and recognizing that without reform, his country could soon be facing a similar situation. So maybe, pure or not, it’s not the motive that matters as much as the outcome.

Unfortunately this outcome seems to be more symbolic than realistic. Still, some Saudis have hope. Many say this is another example of the ultra-religious losing ground in Saudi Arabia, and others assert that having some women in politics, no matter how small the number or how insignificant the position, will bring more light to women’s issues and pave the way for future reforms.

I don’t know if I’m quite that optimistic, especially since the king will probably be succeeded by Prince Nayef ibn Abdulaziz, the Saudi interior minister, who appears to be more of a traditionalist, but I do recognize the power of global pressure and I’m happy to see that it’s finally starting to affect women. Justice or just words, it may not matter, sometimes even a solely symbolic gesture can be the match that starts a fire of change. We saw it last February with the Arab Spring—maybe a Women’s Spring will be next.

Cross-posted on Rachel Simmons’ website

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  • Helen H @ at 6:55 pm, October 3rd, 2011

    Thanks for writing this. I was worried about the first half but you balanced it out very well in the rest. As an Arab American I am very happy about the reforms but also wary of them. I think they are definitely something to be appreciated but should also be a stepping stone to more reforms. Nonetheless it’s (even if it’s tiny) a step in the right direction.

  • Vanessa M @ at 9:53 am, October 4th, 2011

    Thank you for this article!

    I’m glad that Saudi women are going somewhere, although the fight is far from over. I’m looking forward to your next articles!

  • allie @ at 2:57 pm, October 4th, 2011

    I like how level headed your story was. You didn’t really blame the religion, just the people in the country who are doing the oppressing. Many people do the opposite which can be very annoying. Though I believe in a women’s right to choose to wear what ever she wants, even if it covers all but her eyes; I do believe it should be HER choice, not a mans or the government. I have friends who are Muslim and they tell me that burkas really aren’t of Islam, it’s more cultural. All Islam really requires is for you to cover your hair and it’s also the women’s choice in doing so. I think the King is doing his best and easing people into it. Reform sometimes has to come slowly,he probably doesn’t want others to revolt against him but that’s just my personal opinion.

  • Jenny @ at 10:56 pm, October 5th, 2011

    I find this story very interesting. I am not one to keep up with what is going on around the world but it is refreshing to hear that women that have very limited rights in Saudi Arabia are finally getting some rights. It has always disturbed me the way men are so controlling and powerful in Saudi Arabia. You have a very good point though that because the men would be the one to drive the woman to vote–would he even do this? And if she does, when she gets there, her face will be covered anyways so is the woman really winning in this situation? It is a very difficult argument to settle. It is so easy for women in the United States to vote and be a part of the country’s politics–we have already won that battle…but like you pointed out, are the Saudi Arabian women actually winning in this situation? Could men only be agreeable to this because it gives them more power to grant others something they should be able to do anyways? On the positive side, I do like that the current King really seems to be trying–more than the others anyways. Although it is a step that should have been taken long ago, at least he is passing the laws, that are completely against what Saudi Arabians are used to, slowly so it does not hit some people too hard and all at once. I also wanted to point out the fact that I agree with Allie completely in that what a woman wears should be her choice and only hers. I would love for a man to tell ME what I should wear!
    P.S. I love your blog! It is so well laid out and includes many interesting articles. I look forward to reading more from you!

  • Nano Muse @ at 6:37 am, October 6th, 2011

    The King is actually big on reform, but he’s being blocked by a lot of internal politics. Far from a dictator he’s actually at the mercy of quite a few religious and political factions within the country.

    One really good book I recommend for anyone interested in Saudi Arabia is “The Land of Invisible Women” by Qanta Ahmed. It’s a female doctor’s memoirs of working in Saudi Arabia, and it really gives you a feel for how the country’s strict laws *really* affect women (i.e. officially they’re not allowed to own businesses, yet thousands of women manage to do so anyway using men as no more than fronts), and a good explanation of Saudi Arabian politics (which surprisingly is just as race driven, if not more so, than American politics, and really complicated at hell and will make anyone go @_@ trying to wrap their heads around it).

    One thing that really surprised me was the impression that many people actually had more trust in the royal family and their network of nobles and governors to protect them, rather than the elected officials.

    I honestly think that the right to vote is an empty promise, a platitude at best in a country whose government isn’t exactly election-run. But it is massively symbolic, and when there are politicians in the country who want to put into effect even more stringent laws like forbidding women outside of the home for anything but work or family obligations, and want to change the protocols of the Hajj so women can’t go near the Ka’aba, the fact that the king decided to go ahead with giving women the right to vote anyway is BIG step forward and one to be celebrated, not for itself but the change it can and will bring.

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