A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, September 26, 2011

Saudi Women and the Vote: A Small Acknowledgment of Arab Spring?

Based on King ‘Abdullah's announcement over the weekend, it now appears that Saudi women will be given the right to vote and run in municipal elections and to be appointed to the Shura Council, even though, as Zeinobia has acerbically pointed out, they still can't drive to the polling place.

Juan Cole's analysis situates the move within the broader movements for women's rights and political reform in the Kingdom, and poses the question of whether it goes far enough. As with any of the reforms offered by established regimes in the face of the ferment of the Arab Street in what is still called "Arab Spring" as the leaves begin to fall, only the course of events can answer that. With the (extremely important) exception of Bahrain, the GCC states have generally avoided the violence of other Arab protests, mostly by increasing social and economic benefits in lieu of political rights.

Municipal councils are only partly elected (and partly appointed); they are the only vote Saudis can exercise. The Shura Council is fully appointed, though reformers have pressured for electing at least some of its members.

It is hard for me to picture a revolutionary movement succeeding in Saudi Arabia, but last December it was hard for me to picture the toppling of leaders in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli and the ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Syria. King ‘Abdullah is often portrayed as a reformer (within the parameters of the Saudi Royal Family), and some had suggested that — as a Saudi professor says in the interview below — he would move on the driving rights issue soon. Instead, he has chosen to move on the issue of voting and service on the Shura Council.

It is certainly a victory for Saudi women, if a small one with a long way to go. Here's an Al Jazeera discussion in English, which Juan Cole also reproduced:

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