Saudi Women’s Vote: Does it Go Far Enough?

The surprise announcement on Sunday by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that women will be allowed to vote in and run for office in the municipal elections scheduled in four years is another sign of the pressure the kingdom is under to reform. Although this announcement wasn’t anticipated, it comes as a result in part of nearly a decade of women’s activism, beginning with a January 2003 petition from Saudi women demanding their political rights. The recent Facebook campaign for driving rights for women, and the act of civil disobedience by some 80 or so in daring to drive, probably helped impel the king to make this decision.

Treatment of women in Saudi Arabia has much more to do with Gulf customs and feelings about gender segregation and male honor being invested in protecting the chastity of the family’s women than it has to do with Islam. The Qur’an sees women as spiritually equal to men. One of the prophet’s wives later led a battle, so women in early Islam were hardly shrinking lilies. Islamic law gives women extensive property rights (unlike in Europe, women did not lose control of their property to their husbands when they married). The real question is whether the Gulf societies can, after 1400 years, catch up to the rights granted women in Islam.

Aljazeera English has video:

An even bigger question is whether the Saudi dynasty, among the last absolute monarchies in the world, is moving fast enough to avert a revolution. This article is a few years old, but it lays out many of the social problems that persist to this day. There are just few safety valves for discontent. Workers cannot unionize. Political dissidents are treated harshly.

In the wake of the Arab Spring and the overthrow of the iron-fisted rulers of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the Saudi royal dynasty has clearly been frantic with apprehension that a similar movement will get going in their country. There were some small protests last spring, as Aljazeera English reported at the time:

That fear is one reason that they intervened so heavy-handedly in the affairs of neighboring little Bahrain, where crowds were demanding constitutional reform (and a minority was even insisting on a revolutionary republic). While the Shiite coloration of the crowds in Manama especially worried Riyadh, that there were massive crowds challenging the king was alarming enough. (Saudi Arabia has its own relatively oppressed minority of Shiites, some 12 percent of the population, who are inconveniently located right above the country’s oil deposits).

In March, King Abdullah offered a big increase in social benefits and bonuses to a wide cross-section of the population, a move widely interpreted as an attempt to bribe Saudis into staying home and not going to the streets in protest.

This new benefits package cost so much money (an estimated $38 billion a year) that the Saudi state is estimated to now require that petroleum stay above 90 dollars a barrel to avoid big budget deficits. Since the kingdom is a swing producer, it can affect the price by reducing exports (and because of the consequent rise in prices it would not even necessarily suffer a shortfall in income if it did so carefully). That is, keeping the Saudi public happy is costing you at the pump.

Giving the vote to women may be part of this attempt to tamp down dissatisfaction with the state. The royal family has fought against Muslim radicals since May of 2003, when the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began blowing things up in Riyadh itself, and Muslim political currents to the right of the king (yes, it is possible) have put political pressure on him. We have seen a number of attempts in the region to dilute the power of Muslim fundamentalists by using women voters and office-holders.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf set things up so that a third of seats in the Pakistani parliament have to go to women. There is also a quota in Iraq. The hope that women (or rather the sort of middle or uppper class women most likely to serve in parliament) will support political reform and oppose religious fundamentalism is not always well borne out. In Pakistan and Iraq, the parties simply put women of their party into parliament, who tended to vote just as patriarchally as the men of the fundamentalist party.

Nor does the right to vote in municipal elections four years down the road in Saudi Arabia amount to all that much. The royal family only allows half the seats on the city council to be filled by elections. It appoints the other half. And it appoints a mayor as a tie-breaker. So the women are being offered the opportunity to vote for 49% of the important decision-making posts.

Moreover, the municipal elections are it. There are no provincial elections. The national Shura Council (advisory body to the king) is appointed by the monarch, though now it can have women on it. At a time when Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans are demanding free and fair, transparent parliamentary elections and the end of secret-police rule, the Saudi monarchy is taking not so much baby steps as embryonic ones. Elections to a national parliament or at least parliament-like advisory body had been scheduled for 2010, but they were never held.

The royal family may be moving too slowly. Half the population is less than 25 years old. The country is 82 percent urban, and 79 percent literate (i.e. aside from the elderly, most people can read and write). Some 60 percent of university students are women. Relatively well-off middle classes in countries like Saudi Arabia frequently get up the courage to challenge the authoritarian character of their government. Saudi Arabia is ruled by a core of powerful princes led by the octogenarian king, but it has altogether some 7,000 princes. Inequality of wealth, high youth unemployment, allegations of corruption, and political repression have all contributed to subterranean discontent. Whether mollifying the half of the population that consists of women will be enough to forestall a growing movement of discontentment remains to be seen.

15 Responses

  1. King Abdullah…if you’r reading this…I would like to apply for citizenship. Call me!

    • If you are thirsty, you go to the well to quench your thirst. Well does not come to you.

      Next, you are saying, “I would like to apply for citizenship. Call me!”

      You are in need of applying for citizenship. He is not asking you to come.

      You want to go. You have to call King Abdullah.

  2. Prof. Cole,

    recently I came across <a href=http://tinyurl.com/3jqzjfn this article in the Independent. It talks about how the historic structures of Mecca and Median are destroyed to make space for a ‘Vegas’ like cityscape.

    If true this seems to be an atrocious destruction of Islam’s cultural heritage. What astounded me is that the article claims that Wahhabism actually encourages this kind of vandalism. If true this would make the Saudi Royals abysmally lousy guardians of Islam’s most sacred sites.

    I’d be very interested to hear your take on this.

  3. I’ve been to all three sites mentioned in the linked article. I think the wahabbi’s have a valid point.
    The trail to the cave on jabel Noor climbs steeply to the peak, where you can look down to the enterance to the cave. What you see there I’d very sad. Hundreds of people jostling to see the inside of the cave as if it was a religious obligation. The mountain itself is littered with what must be tens of thousands of plastic water bottles. From a historical perspective, it would be nice to see the area developed but from a religious standpoint I think it would be better to see the whole area (jabel Noor) leveled to prevent people from turning it into a place of worship.
    The 5 star hotels and condos surrounding the two masjids

  4. (cont.) are a result of real life capitalist facts. People can afford them, so they will be built. I wish there was a way to keep the accommodations equal, even free, but it is still possible for the average person to make hajj so…
    It would also be nice to save all the history, but we have our history in the sera of the prophet and the hadeeth. What is important is that people can make hajj!
    You must realize that Macca is in a small valley with very little room to grow.

  5. In matters that are important to the US/Israel, the Saudi government follows US/Israeli orders. One example was that Saudi Arabia was used as a base from which Iraq’s water supply facilities were destroyed by the US. Another is that Saudi Arabia does not build a nuclear Japan option in the that would break Israel’s regional monopoly on nuclear capability.

    In fact, Saudi Arabia spends more on its military than Israel, but agrees to be supplied by a party, the US that explicitly commits that Israel will be militarily dominant over it.

    That is US pressure.

    The Saudi government is not independent any more than the princely states of the British Raj in what is now India were 100 years ago.

    Of course, the current colonial relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia would not be possible if the government was accountable to the people of the country so the US applies pressure on its colony directly against democracy.

    An independent state ruling what we know as Saudi Arabia would nearly certainly pursue populist foreign policies similar to those of Iran and would render Israel’s viability, at the very least, questionable.

    Claims the US is pressuring Saudi Arabia to democratize are just deception.

  6. If women’s rights are indeed relics of pre-Islamic tribal customs, then perhaps the varieties of “modest dress” requirements imposed by various Islamic societies (or imams) are also tribal and ancient relics rather than well-argued outcomes of interpreting Islamic requirements.

    The whole-body covering of some countries is so very different from the veil and/or hair-covering of some others, that it seems likely that ALMOST ALL these modern customs are non-Islamic in origin, but picked up 1400 years ago and CALLED Islamic.

    Is this discussed?

  7. Dear Prof. Cole–It’s “shrinking violets,” not “shrinking lillies.” Never heard of “shrinking lillies.” I’m sure Islamic women are neither.

  8. Something similar was promised at the time of the 2005 municipal elections, i.e. “women will be allowed to vote in 2009 municipal elections”. So this a reiteration of that original and broken promise. The excuse is, yet again, there are not enough Saudi woman with ID Cards to administer the voting.

    What’s the process for a Saudi woman to get an ID card, does she need permission from her “guardian”.

    BTW the 2011 elections are the ones that were scheduled for 2009 – anyone know why they were delayed.

    To reinforce Juan’s point that the lack of women’s rights is predominantly cultural rather than religious; Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia have predominantly Muslim populations. Women vote in all three countries and all three have have had elected female Head’s of Government.

  9. “Islamic law gives women extensive property rights (unlike in Europe, women did not lose control of their property to their husbands when they married). The real question is whether the Gulf societies can, after 1400 years, catch up to the rights granted women in Islam.”

    Let’s not get carried away regarding the rights of women under Islamic Law. Consider the following:

    A. Women may inherit only one-half of that inherited by their male siblings.

    B. In Sharia Court, the testimony of two women is required in order to equal that of one man.

    C. Perhaps most egregiously, if a woman is raped and wants to bring charges in Sharia Court, she must produce four male witnesses to the rape. (It is as if rape were a spectator sport!) If the woman cannot produce four male witnesses, she herself is charged with adultary.

    Islam has a considerable distance to go before it can be considered modern and equal in its approach to women.

    • All the 3 points you make are in dispute among Muslims, and various courts in Muslim lands have ruled differently on them.

      But my point was that sometimes ideal Islamic law gives women more rights than do Muslim societies

  10. Juan, have you had a chance to parse King ‘Abdallah’s actual speech in Arabic? It includes some vague language that has received little coverage in the press: he doesn’t actually use the word “vote” at any point, and instead announces (in the second decision) that women will be able to “nominate candidates” (tarshih al-murashahin) for municipal elections. Is this Saudi-speak for “voting,” or is it a linguistic oversight that the press has simply been passing along without listening to the actual speech itself?

    • I saw it on Alarabiya. I think it is clear that he meant by ‘participate’ in the elections to be able to vote. And what he said was that a woman had the right to nominate *herself* for political office, I take it in the sense of putting herself forward as a candidate.

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