Too close to call on women’s progress in Saudi Arabia

New progressive measures for women in Saudi Arabia are not as simple as they seem.

BRIGHTON, United Kingdom — King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced that women will be able to vote and nominate themselves in the municipal elections and be represented in the national Shura Council, a consultative advisory forum.

Before we break out in celebratory ululations proclaiming victory, let us take stock of some grim realities.

First, it is important to note that many Saudi women and men have been lobbying for over twenty years for the recognition of more rights for women and yet even this modicum of rights granted will not be in effect immediately. For some inexplicable reason, women cannot exercise this right to vote or nominate themselves in this Thursday’s municipal elections and will have to wait for the next round in four years. King Abdullah did not explain why.

Second, it is important to note the language with which this announcement was pronounced — and which reflected a patron bestowing a privilege. His speech did not indicate any recognition that political agency is a woman’s right or entitlement.

Third, the fact that King Abdullah suggested that bestowing these rights will be in line with the Islamic Shariah can be used as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be used to expand women’s rights more broadly using liberal interpretation, on the other, it can be used to introduce conditions to women’s political rights that severely restrict their ability to exercise this right. Both directions can find justification by the Saudi regime on Shariah grounds.

Fourth, beyond the Saudi context, we have seen highly patriarchal authoritarian governments make concessions on women’s political agency to appease rights’ advocates while in effect supporting the appointment of token women who serve to tow the government line.

In the absence of any substantial evidence of broader political reform in the Saudi context, it is difficult to believe that the government is keen on going beyond the cosmetic. This is a particular concern since the Shura Council lacks any powers to influence policy process or outcome. The litmus test will be whether the Saudi government has the political will to translate the right to vote and be voted into office in practice by taking active measures to create an enabling environment for women to exercise such a right.

Without such interventions, the hostility that these women will face, in particular in nominating themselves, will be highly prohibitive. After all, it is from Saudi Arabia that the Wahabi-Salafi ideology, which does not support women’s right to equality, has spread across the Muslim world.

In the Saudi context, the pendulum vis-a-vis women’s rights could swing both ways.

King Abdullah could use the newly announced women’s right to political participation as an “excuse” to introduce substantial rights in relation to women’s mobility (right to drive, right to get a passport without father’s or husband’s permission, right to have a medical operation without the latter’s permission) or in relation to the more controversial area of marriage, divorce and custody — which represents the bastion of patriarchal power hierarchy.

So for example under the pretext of enabling women to exercise their right to vote or lobby their constituency, “concessions” could be made such as allowing them to drive their own cars or issue official documents without a man’s permission. This would represent a low key gradualist approach to widening the scope of freedoms.

On the other hand, the Saudi regime could use the newly bestowed “political representation concession” as an excuse to withhold more democratic rights. “We gave you the right to vote, what more do you want?” could be one of the knee jerk reactions to calls for more rights, playing on some Saudi fears’ of becoming like the West.

History tells us that when it comes to rights, there are no linear paths to be trodden, and so the struggle for a socially inclusive, humane and just society continues.

Dr Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. She edited the IDS Bulletin ‘Add quotas and stir’ in 2010.  The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) is a leading global charity for research, teaching and information on international development based in the UK.