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28/09/2011 | Opinion - Saudi women gain little

Editorial

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has stirred interest with his September 25 announcement that women would have the right to vote in future municipal elections and would be able to contest as well. Women are also to have seats in the Majlis Al-Shura, the body consulted by the King on a range of public policy issues. The new law is to take effect in the 2015 municipal polls.

 

Campaigners have attributed the King's move to the courage of Saudi women themselves, to Saudi social media, and to the effect of the continuing popular uprisings across West Asia and North Africa. In fact, this modest extension of the franchise to women will be in accordance with a law made in 2005 but never implemented. One of the stated reasons for non-implementation was that there would be problems in running segregated polling booths. In any case, the 2008 elections were postponed to 2009 and then did not take place at all. This time, the Majlis itself seems to have played a part by reviving the issue of women's suffrage. While it has always been able to summon officials and request access to official documents, its powers have been gradually extended, and it can now propose and amend legislation without the ruler's prior approval.

The King's announcement might be viewed as an overdue recognition of what should be treated as an inalienable human right — but the move is not all it might appear to be. The hardline Salafist clergy who form the country's ulema have, according to the ruler, endorsed this limited form of women's suffrage. The clerics have little to fear at present. The municipal councils are virtually powerless, and even if women can stand for office they will find it extremely difficult to campaign or even to get to the polling stations (as they are banned from driving, not by any written law but by a fatwa). As for the Majlis, it is in no sense a representative assembly, as it is appointed by the King. In contrast, challenges to the driving ban have provoked far stronger reactions, with several women being stopped and questioned; some, clearly under duress, have signed promises not to drive again. The clergy's differing reactions to the issues expose the mutual dependence of the hard-boiled clerics and the royal family. The former, who are suspicious of the more liberal royals, provide the House of Saud with spiritual legitimation in a deeply conservative society. The latter ruthlessly suppress any expression of ideas that implies a departure from Salafist orthodoxy. The two dominant Saudi Arabian institutions evidently fear democracy and equality even more than they fear women at the wheel.

The Hindu (India)

 


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Center for the Study of the Presidency
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