October 10, 2011 by Nash Riggins
It’s hard to say whether King Abdullah’s recent decision to allow women’s suffrage, which is to take effect in 2015, is a direct result of the Arab Spring, or if the aging leader simply yearns to steer his people into the modern era. However, one thing is certain: women in Saudi Arabia still have a very long fight ahead of them.
In King Abdullah’s September announcement, he expressed anticipation regarding what he referred to as “cautious reform,” which is something the monarch has claimed to be exploring the implementation of for quite some time.
“Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior Ulama (clerics) and others…to involve women in the Shura council as members, starting from the next term,” Abdullah proclaimed. “Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote.”
Aside from the fact that the word “even” slipped out in a rather patronising manner, the King should indeed be commended for taking this rather dangerous step toward equality in a nation where a woman cannot leave her home unless accompanied by a male “guardian.” If a woman is caught alone in public without written permission, the consequences can be dire, and they often are.
Take the plight of Shaima Jastaina, for example; only days after women quietly celebrated their fresh promise regarding a basic human right that they should have been inherently born with, Jastaina was arrested and sentenced to 10 lashes for driving her car in public. Luckily for the driver, King Abdullah intervened at the eleventh hour by revoking her sentence, yet the damage had already been done.
Taking into consideration that no female driver has received punishment for getting behind the steering wheel, other than being forced to write a lengthy apology letter, this sentencing was a clear rebuttal against the King’s promise of women’s suffrage, and illustrated the growing rift between the royal family and government officials. Whilst some in the ruling class were completely embarrassed by the progressive changes, or in Saudi Arabia, the lack thereof, taking place throughout the Arab world this spring, it seems many clerics regarded their people’s lack of rebellion as a clear omen that the status quo must be a picture-perfect model of society. The judge who sentenced Jastaina to be beaten made a clear attempt to illustrate to the royal family that the pace of any potential reform will be sluggish at best, and whether or not that judge was put in his place, he is absolutely right.
Saudi Arabia is one of few Arab countries in which women are still forbidden to vote. Nations such as the UAE, Iraq, Jordan, hell, even Afghanistan, have long established women’s suffrage, though female turnout at poll stations are still exceptionally low. Yet whilst women lack basic human rights, focus is driven toward creating skyscrapers that will create envy across the Red Sea. The King is without doubt correct in his assumption that Saudi Arabia’s policies toward women are cause for great embarrassment, whether the reasons are religious or not.
Yet it is crystal-clear that many businessmen and officials use Islam as a scapegoat for not allowing women to take part in essential aspects of daily life in Saudi Arabia; clerics should be hard-pressed to find any readings in the Qur’an that state it does not comply with Sharia for a woman to drive a car to work, let alone have a say in who is contributing toward the governing of her day-to-day life. Women make up 58% of all school graduates yet, for whatever reason, they form a mere 14% of the Saudi workforce. It is one thing for clerics to outlaw a woman from flaunting her form, yet to allow so many brilliant minds to go into hiding just because a group of old men have falsely interpreted the Qu’ran is, in itself, a blatant crime against humanity.
King Abdullah has attempted to make steps towards women’s rights, including steps against gender segregation in schools, but the question is will he deliver? Or rather, will the Saudi Arabian people allow him to deliver?
Women have been promised the vote in the past, and many academics are doubtful as to whether this newfound dream of female participation on the 2015 ballot will actually be realised. The King has been greatly criticised for delaying the arrival of this basic human right to women for an additional four years; however, it was not done out of malice or hesitation. Given the reaction of local judges and clerics, the next four years must be spent convincing the higher-ups of Saudi society that women’s suffrage is not such a bad idea after all. A woman having her say in government will not destroy Islam, nor will it turn her into a “vile whore,” but it is absolutely essential that her voice is heard when the votes are tallied up. The road to 2015 will be extremely bumpy at best, however Saudi Arabia’s leaders, as well as its people, must stay the course if they should ever hope to make their nation a place in which they can deservedly take pride.