Saudi women given the vote, but not allowed to drive

How far do the changes really go?

A decree was made by King Abdullah on Sunday, 25th September that marked a significant moment in the history of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia: women were given the right to vote and run in local elections for the very first time. The King made the announcement during an annual speech to the Shura Council, a council that advises the king on domestic as well as foreign policies.

Saudi women welcomed the announcement, but many reform-seeking activists also brought its limitations to light. One of its limitations being that the decree does not take effect until 2015. Activists question why women must wait four years; conservatives question whether the decree should even be tolerated in the first place.

Some activists also found limitations in the seemingly revolutionary decision of allowing women to be appointed to the Shura Council. The all-male Shura Council currently consists of 150 members divided into 12 committees; the council discusses human rights, foreign policy and socio-economic policies amongst other issues. Reformers who view the decree with criticism highlight the fact that the council has limited influence on actual government policies.

Some women believe that the decree changes very little in reality. Eman al-Nafjan, a blogger in Riyadh, wrote that the decree had only “symbolic meaning”. In fact, the day-to-day lives of women remain unchanged. Women are still segregated in public places, prohibited from driving and are not allowed to travel without the permission of a male guardian due to the gender restrictions from the interpretation of the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam that the kingdom enforces.

Earlier in the year, women challenged the ban on female drivers by getting activists with international licenses to drive in the kingdom. This led to the detention of one of the activists, Manal al-Sharif. In the same month, the King increased employment opportunities for women through a royal decree, which required that only women work in shops that dealt with women’s necessities.

These seemingly contradictory decisions made by King Abdullah are explained by the presence of conservative clerics and change-resisting royal family members. Clerics maintain significant influence on decisions about the kingdom; the recent decision to allow women to vote and run for local elections was also consulted with the top clerics before it was announced.

Fears of upsetting the conservatives are balanced by fears of social upheaval. In March, Abdullah increased spending on funds for military and religious groups that supported the ban on domestic protests. The King, considered a reformer, struggles to satisfy the conservatives and clerics while avoiding any chance of unrest that have swept the kingdom’s neighbours in the ‘Arab Spring’. Thus, Abdullah pursues gradual reform so as not to upset the clerics and to discourage upheavals.

It is a difficult balancing act that has left a scar on the face of the recent decree: Saudi women were given the vote, but they are still not allowed to drive. Nevertheless, seeing as the King overturned the decision by court to punish a female activist with 10 lashes for breaking the female-driving ban, Saudi women’s hopes for more reforms in the near future do not seem unfounded.

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