One small step for Saudi women

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia delivers a speech to the Saudi Shura Council, or advisory assembly, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 25, 2011. Saudi King Abdullah has given the kingdom’s women the right to vote for first time in nationwide local elections, due in 2015.

The announcement from Saudi Arabia Sunday that King Abdullah had granted Saudi women the right to vote and run for office in municipal elections is a promising marker. It appears to be evidence that even the tightly run Saudi patriarchy is not immune from the demand for reforms that have struck the Arab world this year.

But there is also good reason that Saudi women have not taken to the streets in celebration.

For one thing, in most cases, they are not allowed out in public unless accompanied by a male member of their family. Additionally, they are still not allowed to drive.

Also, the right to vote is not to be granted for another four years, according to King Abdullah’s proclamation. Much could change during that time.

Furthermore, even if the voting right is granted, Saudi Arabia remains a country where males and Muslim clerics hold all of the trump cards.

Traditionalist Saudi males who don’t want the women in their families to participate in elections have ample means of preventing them — by simply refusing anyone to drive them to polls or to campaign functions and preventing them from going out in public.

And conservative Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia have stalled other reforms by exhorting their followers not to accept them, even if the king or other members of the royal family have proposed them.

The so-called Arab Spring — the demand for reforms and the removal of tyrants — that has spread from Tunisa to Egypt to Libya and other parts of the Arab world this year represents a few faltering first steps toward serious democratic reform that embraces all members of Arab society.

If the millions of women in the Arab world begin raising their voices in unity, demanding equality and real reform, it will result in a wholesale transformation of that region.

The minor changes King Abdullah proposed over the weekend may be enough to placate Saudi women for now, or it could be the spark that leads to much greater change.


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