After King Abdullah’s announcement yesterday giving women the right to vote and run in the next municipal elections, as well as allowing them to serve on the Shura Council, my Twitter timeline was abuzz with two responses: female friends expressing joy about the “historic step,” and others joking about how pointless this move is if women can’t drive.
Funnily enough, these two sentiments were reflected in editorials of major newspapers, too.
This seemingly small step (or utterly meaningless step, depending on which side of the debate you stand) was years in the making and no doubt a result of the Arab Spring. It began as a petition filed in 2003 by Saudi women asking for political rights, and gained momentum recently when women braved detentions by driving in public, armed with nothing but virtual support from social media sites.
How significant then is the King’s announcement?
Very, if you listen what my young Saudi colleague had to say. Upon hearing the news yesterday, his 18-year-old sister said that she wanted to contest elections. Overnight, a young woman’s future plans changed.
On the face of it, the rights are rather insignificant: women will be able to participate ─ in 2015 ─ in municipal elections where half of the members are unelected (appointed by the King) and where where they will deal with essentially local issues. In the Shura Council they will be appointed – not elected – by the king, where they will serve as an advisory body on a host of issues.
It’s easy to see this as meaningless when you come from countries where women’s rights are a given – even if they are often trampled upon – but analysts on Saudi Arabia say this step will prove to be a huge shift in attitudes towards women, who are largely invisible in the political sphere. It is thus significant because it represents progress in, as The Independent said in an editorial on Monday, “the very land where it seemed least likely.”
This step towards gender equality will have to be matched with concrete measures, such as the right to drive ─ the one issue that dominates the Saudi narrative in the international press ─ and the right to act independently without male guardians.
Manal al-Sharif, the woman who defied the driving ban and became a poster child for women’s right to drive in the kingdom, tweeted her support on Sunday: “King Abdullah has a vision: for a woman to take her rights, she has to be part of the decision-making body!”
As small as it may appear, full political rights based on equality at the very least seem more possible than ever before.