Call it a pre emptive ‘Arab Autumn’ strike by Saudi Arabia’s ruler King Abdullah to stave off any potential protests, call it what you like but what is distinctly poignant about this new vote is that for the first time women in the Kingdom will be able to vote and run in municipal elections.
During the five minute speech on Sunday, the king also announced they would be able to join the male dominated Shura council, the formal body advising the king, whose members are all appointed. This move has been described as ”extraordinary,” by some observers.
Considered a reformer, the King said, “Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulama (clerics) and others… to involve women in the Shura Council as members, starting from the next term.”
This is no small feat. This means that from now on women will be able to join the ranks of men in the most influential political body in the country. Many of us who have enjoyed the freedom to vote have taken it for granted but for women in the Kingdom it is a significant step forward, one that has been welcomed by activists pushing for women’s rights in the country.
Eman Al Nafjan, a Saudi women’s rights blogger, told ABC News that ”we were not expecting it at all. There was speculation that the King would speak about the housing situation. It’s a major step forward and a happy surprise. We are just hoping that a decision that affects the everyday life of the average Saudi woman would come out like lifting the ban on women driving.”
But despite their hard work and endless efforts to change the views in this conservative country which enforces a strict version of Sunni Islamic law, some of their pleas have fallen on deaf ears with some of the clerics and even members of the royal family shunning change. Remember the driving ban for women?
Saudi women have been tirelessly trying to reverse these laws to enable women to drive so that they can have more freedom and no longer have to rely on their male guardians to commute. Al Nafjan spoke of her frustration telling ABC News, “Do you know how difficult it is for me? I am 32 years old, a mother of three, teaching college students and I am trusted to teach but not trusted behind the wheel?” Al Nafjan is working on getting the voices of other women heard and finding a platform for their organization (http://www.change.org). She told ABC News that the ”local media deny we exist.”
The ‘Saudi Women for Driving’ campaign, they have defiantly said the women will continue their efforts to pave the way for female drivers and lifting the ban in the Kingdom, saying “If Saudi police think arresting women drivers is going to stop what has already become the largest women’s rights movement in Saudi history, they are sorely mistaken. On the contrary, these arrests will encourage more women to get behind the wheel in direct defiance of this ridiculous abuse of our most basic human rights.”
So for now the women in Saudi Arabia may be able to vote but they won’t be able to get behind the wheel and drive to a polling station, instead, they still have to rely on a male companion.