Saudi monarch grants kingdomâ€™s women right to vote, but driving ban remains in force
By Associated Press
Veiled Saudi women take photos of their children during a ceremony to celebrate Saudi Arabia’s Independence Day in Riyadh in this September 23, 2009 file photograph.
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia â€” Saudi Arabiaâ€™s King Abdullah, considered a reformer by the standards of his own ultraconservative kingdom, decreed on Sunday that women will for the first time have the right to vote and run in local elections due in 2015.
For the nationâ€™s women, it is a giant leap forward, though they remain unable to serve as Cabinet ministers, drive or travel abroad without permission from a male guardian.
Saudi women bear the brunt of their nationâ€™s deeply conservative values, often finding themselves the target of the unwanted attention of the kingdomâ€™s intrusive religious police, who enforce a rigid interpretation of Islamic Shariah law on the streets and public places like shopping malls and university campuses.
In itself, Sundayâ€™s decision to give the women the right to vote and run in municipal elections may not be enough to satisfy the growing ambition of the kingdomâ€™s women who, after years of lavish state spending on education and vocational training, significantly improved their standing but could not secure the same place in society as that of their male compatriots.
That women must wait four more years to exercise their newly acquired right to vote adds insult to injury since Sundayâ€™s announcement was already a long time coming â€” and the next local elections are in fact scheduled for this Thursday.
â€œWhy not tomorrow?â€ asked prominent Saudi feminist Wajeha al-Hawaidar. â€œI think the king doesnâ€™t want to shake the country, but we look around us and we think it is a shame … when we are still pondering how to meet simple womenâ€™s rights.â€
The announcement by King Abdullah came in an annual speech before his advisory assembly, or Shura Council. It was made after he consulted with the nationâ€™s top religious clerics, whose advice carries great weight in the kingdom.
It is an attempt at â€œSaudi styleâ€ reform, moves that avoid antagonizing the powerful clergy and a conservative segment of the population. Additionally, it seems to be part of the kingâ€™s drive to insulate his vast, oil-rich country from the upheavals sweeping other Arab nations, with popular uprisings toppling regimes that once looked as secure as his own.
Fearing unrest at home, the king in March announced a staggering $93 billion package of incentives, jobs and services to ease the hardships experienced by some Saudis. In the meantime, he sent troops to neighbor and close ally Bahrain to help the tiny nationâ€™s Sunni ruling family crush an uprising by majority Shiites pressing for equal rights and far-reaching reforms.
In contrast, King Abdullah in August withdrew the Saudi ambassador from Syria to protest President Bashar Assadâ€™s brutal crackdown on a seven-month uprising that calls for his ouster and the establishment of a democratic government.
â€œWe didnâ€™t ask for politics, we asked for our basic rights. We demanded that we be treated as equal citizens and lift the male guardianship over us,â€ said Saudi activist Maha al-Qahtani, an Education Ministry employee who defied the ban on women driving earlier this year. â€œWe have many problems that need to be addressed immediately.â€