Being promised the right to vote is nothing new for Saudi women. Having already been barred from the kingdom’s first municipal elections in 2005, they were promised the right to vote in 2009. The government not only reneged on this promise but also postponed the elections – they were held yesterday despite calls from more than 60 Saudi intellectuals and activists for them to be boycotted for excluding women – ensuring that, yet again, an exclusively male electorate will continue to elect exclusively male councils.
Sunday’s decree was carefully worded to ensure that everyone, especially the conservatives, understand that King Abdullah made this decision in consultation with the country’s religious scholars. Addressing the all-male Shura Council, the body charged with advising the king on legislation and questioning ministers, he said: “We refuse to marginalise the role of women in Saudi society in every field of work … Women are entitled to nominate themselves for membership in municipal councils and they are also entitled to participate in the nomination of candidates according to the parameters of the shari’a.” He also stated that women would be able to participate “in the Shura Council as members in the next round according to legal parameters”. By saying this he hinted at the upcoming rules yet to be announced by Saudi ministries, which are not guaranteed to cooperate with alacrity.
This vaguely worded announcement has been widely presented as though it extends the franchise to Saudi women and that they can now be appointed to the Shura Council. But there is not much beneath this veneer of optimism. The decree does not include the word “vote” and does not explicitly extend voting rights to Saudi women. The key phrase is “participation in the nomination of candidates” and what this means is not clear. Whether it implies female suffrage will depend on how it is interpreted in four years’ time. What the decree actually says is that women can nominate candidates or be nominated themselves for the municipal elections in 2015. These elections consist of two phases: first, the process of nomination; second, the election itself. The decree does not actually state that women can vote in the second phase. This may or may not be implied.
Clearly the Arab Spring has had some effect on the kingdom where protests have been taking place since January. The Kingdom’s response to this unrest included a huge increase in social benefits as well as bonuses to a wide cross-section of the population, to the tune of 38 billion dollars per year (which has added $10 to the price of every barrel of Saudi oil). Championing women’s rights may be the latest ruse by which dissatisfaction with the state is suppressed.
In a country where the guardianship system dominates all aspects of women’s lives (they are barred from travelling, working or having medical operations without the permission of their male “guardians”), where they are not even allowed to drive – it was only on Monday, the day after King Abdullah’s announcement, that a woman was sentenced to 10 lashes for defying the ban – the right to vote in municipal elections in four years’ time does not amount to very much. Only 49% of the seats of city councils are filled by elections; the royal family appoints the remainder, including the mayor. Even worse, these are not provincial elections and the Shura Council is still appointed rather than elected, while its powers are merely consultative. Whereas Arabs in other countries have toppled their dictators and can now demand free, fair and transparent parliamentary elections and the abolition of secret police forces, Saudi women have been promised voting rights in a country where voting means nothing.
As if these contradictions were not enough, within hours of the king’s announcement Saudi scholar Sheikh Mohammed Al-Habdan brought the situation back to square one by tweeting that “the majority of scholars consider women’s participation in the Shura Council to be haram [unlawful/sinful]”. Given the central role played by religious scholars in Saudi politics, scepticism over the announcement is not unjustified. All laws are subject to both their influence and approval. In addition, the “mutual support pact” made 300 years ago between the House of Saud and the House of Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab (known as the Al al-Sheikh) secures the former’s support for the latter’s religious authority while the latter legitimates the former’s political authority. This means that the sentiments expressed by Sheikh Al-Habdan cannot be taken lightly. Saudi Arabia remains a schizophrenic society caught between the Wahhabism of its clerics and the desire for reform expressed by a generation of highly educated and well-travelled Saudis (of both sexes).
We shall have to wait another four years to see if this latest promise will be kept. And even then, voting for powerless bodies in a country that does not permit political parties – let alone political dissent – may not have been worth waiting for. Hopefully, it will be the starting point for serious reform.
Photo Credits: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar. FILE - In this Nov. 11, 2010 file photo, Saudi woman with cellphones smoke tobacco from a waterpipe as they drink coffee in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
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