On Sunday, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia granted women the right to vote and the right to run in municipal elections. This decision came on the heels of a number of royal decrees and civilization projects aimed at modernizing Saudi Arabia. Many throughout the world commend this momentous declaration for women’s rights, however acknowledging, despite these changes, that women’s rights remain very limited in Saudi Arabia. The question remains, what real change will these rights bear on women’s status in Saudi Arabian society?
According to the White House, this is, “an important step forward in expanding the rights of women in Saudi Arabia.” The White House welcomed the announcement and noted it recognizes the significant contributions women make in Saudi Arabian society. Yet, the King’s announcement was the result of the ever-increasing pressure, largely from the growing number of Saudi women activists, to grant women the right to vote. In the past year, the activists have become much more active and adamant in increasing women’s rights. The activists have written formal requests to the government to demanding the right to vote and to run for election, as well as attempted to gain entry into voting centers this past April for the chance to vote in the latest elections. In June the activists also took to the streets in cars, defying the ban on female drivers, in efforts to obtain the right for women to drive and travel freely throughout the nation. Many activists hail Sunday’s announcement as “great news,” but do so with the continued demand that further barriers be removed so that women can function without requiring a male guardian.
Ahmed Al-Jarallah sees the announcement as nothing short of completing the democratic process in Saudi Arabia. He says that King Abdullah’s declaration is just the beginning because the King “does not want to marginalize the role of women in the Saudi society according to religious constraint.” Thus, he sees that there are more changes to come, and feels the royal decree will allow women to carry out their activities without a male guardian. This expansive view of Sunday’s decree is, however, in the minority.
While the King’s declaration provided reason for jubilation, many political activists caution to temper the expectations of upcoming change. “Some women wondered aloud how they would be able to campaign for office when they were not even allowed to drive. And there is a long history of royal decrees stalling, as weak enactment collides with the bulwark of traditions ordained by the Wahhabi sect of Islam and its fierce resistance to change.” Many question how quickly change will occur, and how many women will actually be able to participate since the religious traditionalism that dominates the country still allows, if not encourages, men to limit women’s participation in the legal realm.
Further, “Some analysts described the King’s choice as the path of least resistance.” By giving women this right, he may be able to ignore demands for an elected Shura. Granting women the right to vote was also less controversial than giving women the right to drive. Moreover, under the current system, often controlled by religious edicts, it is required that a male guardian accompany females when a female wants to travel or take part in daily commercial activities, if allowed to participate at all. The problem in many instances is not with Saudi Arabian law, but with the vigor of traditional beliefs. Thus, Fawazaih Bakr, an Education Professor in Riyadh said, “We are now looking for even more,” because this “is not something that will change the life of most women.”
There is no doubt that King Abdullah’s decree was a step in the right direction for women’s rights and their struggle for equality in Saudi Arabia. Yet, there are serious reservations about whether this declaration was intended only as a symbolic step in hopes of avoiding the greater push for overwhelming change, or if this is the first step of many to come for veritable changes to women’s rights. Activists are happy to see this step forward for women’s rights, but they will not stop here in their fight for equality. Although unlikely that any monumental change will come fast, or without much resistance from traditional Saudi Arabia, Sunday’s decree does bring new hope for a future of equality for men and women within Saudi Arabia.