Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah announced women would be given the right to vote and stand in elections.
1. Is it a real breakthrough for the women in Saudi Arabia?
2. How expected or unexpected is this statement? Is this reform somehow linked to Arab Spring and can we expect more reform in Saudi Arabia or not?
Lisa Wynn, Lecturer, Department of Anthropology, Macquarie University
1. I think the way to interpret the news is as a marker of slow but steady reform, and as a symbolic reform that will not have much immediate impact on women’s status but which will pave the way for later changes. Saudi Arabia has a highly educated population of many men and women who have studied and traveled abroad and are very cosmopolitan, and these are the people who have been pushing for reform. The king is trying to move carefully so as to bring reform in a way that will not engender a conservative backlash. This decision to give women the vote empowers women who have supportive, liberal families and husbands. Women who come from conservative families will probably not vote, and certainly won’t stand for election. But it is an important symbolic move that will pave the way for more reform with time.
An interesting parallel is women’s education. Free education for women was introduced in the 1960s through the influence of a powerful Saudi princess. Yet, in the beginning, only the very elites sent their girls to school. Conservatives were skeptical and kept their girls home. So the fact that it was available didn’t mean that women were all being educated. However, it was an important symbolic move that paved the way for gradual change. Today, women and men attend university for free (with a government provided stipend), and government scholarships are available to women as well as men to study abroad for higher degrees, providing they have a family chaperon. And today, more women attend university and graduate with university degrees than men do in Saudi Arabia.
2. How unexpected is it? I think it is not surprising that the Saudi royal family, the wake of enormous political change elsewhere in the region, has decided that it needs to make a few careful symbolic steps towards reform. However, I don’t think it’s just happening in response to the Arab Spring. I don’t think that the royal family considers women’s rights issues to be a political threat. If there were going to be revolution in Saudi Arabia, it would not be over the question of whether women can vote or drive. I think that the king genuinely supports greater equality for women and he has judged that Saudi society is ready for this change.
Asef Bayat, Professor of Sociology and Middle Eastern studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
1. I think in the context of Saudi Arabia, this decision is important. I would not call it a breakthrough. After all these are only for local elections and in a body with limited power. Nevertheless, opening the way for women to be involved in political activities in in public sphere is something to welcome.
2. One would expect from the Saudi state to come up with some measures to involve women in public policies even though to limited degrees. The thing is that important social changes are currently happening in the Saudi society, and in the position of women. Women are getting increasingly literate and educated. Some are already involved in business, university work, in retail, social work, and other ‘civil society’ activities. In recent months within the context of Arab Spring, many Saudi women have demanded meaningful change in their position. Some have dared collectively to defy the state officials and religious institutions by collectively driving in the streets (women are not supposed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia). This campaign has made much headlines in the Arab and International media. Some other women have dared come out in the streets without veil and have filmed themselves, sending those films around through the social media. So, Saudi officials are somewhat alarmed by these initiatives and which to manage and control any change with respect to women. Certainly, Arab spring has impacted Saudi society as well. And the political class and women are following the events in the Arab world very closely.
Robert Jordan, US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2001-03
1. This has the potential to be a real breakthrough though we won’t know until it is implemented. The King announced several years ago the women would vote in the “next” elections but it hasn’t happened, partly due to logistical difficulties in providing separate voting facilities to comply with Shariah. I believe they are sincere and intend to make it happen, but there is always pushback from the more conservative elements that do not support this. The King deserves real credit for reviving this idea.
2. As the King made a similar statement several years ago, it was not a total surprise, though many thought it had died for lack of internal support. As it was announced initially several years ago, the idea does not come from the Arab Spring, but the timing of its revival suggests an effort to pursue more reforms in today’s context. King Abdullah already has supported reforms in the Saudi economy that were required to join the World Trade Organization. More are expected in the judicial arena. Scattered reports have arisen that some women are driving with their husbands’ permission, although no generalized announcement has been made. If the past is any guide, some reforms will be announced, but it will be an uneven process.
Toby Jones, Assistant Professor of History, Rutgers University
1. I think this is a significant development for Saudi women. It is more symbolic than substantive, but it is meaningful. Saudi women have long called for expanded political rights and this is a response to many years of devoted activism on their part. But much remains to be done, for women and for all Saudis. The king has not seriously pursued a reform agenda. And this move is still a fairly limited one.
2. The decision is meant to ease various sources of pressure. It comes amidst considerable regional movement and upheaval and it certainly should be considered in the context of the Arab Spring. But it is also a relatively safe move for Abdullah. He will not face considerable pressure as a result. And he knows it.