Debate Magazine

Is Suffrage for Saudi Women Justice, Or Just Words?

Posted on the 03 October 2011 by Juliez

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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