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Amidst violence and upheaval in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah’s recent announcement that women will be granted the right to vote seems a refreshing development. In fact, the 87 year-old monarch’s decree includes not only voting rights for women, but the ability to run in municipal elections, and to join the King’s Shura Council.
However, many worry that this apparent step forward in women’s rights is not all that it appears to be, as similar promises have been alluded to before and never seen fruition. Although encouraging, no changes will take place immediately — if implemented at all, elections won’t be affected until 2015.
By that time, the conservative nation of Saudi Arabia might have a new leader, with an entirely separate agenda from the comparatively liberal King Abdullah. Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, was quoted by ABC news saying this about the announcement;
It is a promise, it is not actually a legislative reform…It’s not sanctified in any kind of law. The risk is if the next king comes in and says, ‘We won’t do that after all.’ One of the biggest problems of King Abdullah as a reformer is that the actions that will last beyond his lifetime are really at question and at risk.
In addition, even if women are granted the right to vote, the legislation as it is being discussed now would do nothing to address the tribally rooted guardianship system which all Saudi women must comply with. The guardianship system extends over practically every aspect of a grown woman’s life.
Without a male’s permission, she cannot travel, go to school, marry, or even have medical surgery. In court, the testimony of one male equals that of two women, and a woman who is raped is considered a guilty party in the crime.
One of the aspects of the guardianship system most hotly contested by women’s rights activists is the law which prevents Saudi women from driving. According to a recent update from the BBC, women around the country have been illegally taking to the streets over the past months in a near unprecedented display of protest.
Last May, seven women were arrested for driving, and a small, secondary protest followed in June. Just this week, King Abdullah overturned a sentence of ten lashes levied against a female driver.
However, in the name of fairness, the BBC also spoke with a Saudi man who claimed, “There are hundreds and thousands of guys and they get the same or more if they do bad things…If I am in the mall and I bother some girl, I will get more than [10 lashes] from the court.”
Most Saudi women’s activists are under no illusion that the right to vote will change everything overnight. Many believe that no improvement will occur until women can drive themselves to the polls, but at the very least, it’s a step forward somewhere and that’s cause enough for celebration.