Saudi Women Get the Vote but the UK Should Keep Praise to a Minimum
The United Kingdom takes pride in its commitment to global gender equality making it fair to concede that it has done a respectable job of being at the forefront of many gender development decisions. Most recently, it made clear its dedication to the new UN Women which I have previously discussed in a separate article. Therefore, when King Abdullah announced that women in Saudi Arabia have been given the right to vote and to run in future municipal elections, it was inevitably welcomed by the UK.
Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed the reports and stated that this will be a significant step forward for the people of Saudi Arabia. He also reminded the international community that the UK strongly supports moves to increase the political and economic participation of women across the Arab world.
King Abdullah reaffirmed that Muslim history has previously shown that women were capable of rational thinking and decision making and that Muslim women have demonstrated positions that expressed correct opinions and advice. However, although these are comments have been welcomed with praise, they do still demonstrate a fundamental perception of women that needs to be changed.
Furthermore, although this new step forward is being praised globally, rightly so as Saudi Arabia is literally the world’s ‘last bastion against female suffrage’ as Blomfield points out, it is important to keep praise to a minimum. Let us push naivety to one side and examine the situation more closely.
Firstly, it is important to note that although this fundamental freedom has now finally been granted, seeing it reinforced and put into practice is a vitally different story. Furthermore, women now having the supposed chance to vote should not sweep aside or supersede the grim reality that Saudi women are still denied some of the most basic freedoms. These include being denied the right to drive and leave the country without the permission of a male guardian. Notably, women have been campaigning for some of these fundamental rights for over 20 years. More recently, women campaigned for their right to drive. This protest, however, was quickly suppressed when a number of women were arrested.
More fundamentally, it is imperative that we look at why this decision has finally been made. With the various populist demonstrations that have swept much of the region already, King Abdullah has come under pressure to save the monarchy. Therefore, it has not come as a complete shock that it has been announced now.
However, the most blatant aspect of King Abdullah’s decision to grant the vote to women is that current municipal elections are taking place this Thursday. This means that women will not be able to vote this time around and will not be able to run either as nominations are already closed. Therefore, none of these new reforms will begin taking place until 2015 at the earliest. Thus, it seems to me quite a convenient time to have put forward this change.
As a result, although progress is being made on paper, I am convinced that women will still be disenchanted in practice. Yes, it is fair to concede that this is a step forward. However, the scale of this step should not be thrust out of proportion. As one Saudi women said yesterday “So I can vote, but I can’t get a driver’s license.”
When greater gender reforms are made in Saudi Arabia, if they ever will be, then we should label it as a country focused on gender development. Until then, I recommend that too big of a fuss is not made and that the UK keeps its praise to a minimum.