Women in Saudi Arabia get vote


SAUDI ARABIAN women will be allowed to vote and run as candidates in municipal elections for the first time from next year, King Abdullah said, in what is being viewed as a move to head off criticism and a victory for liberal opinion.

Women will also be able to join the Majlis ash-Shura, Saudi Arabia’s appointed consultative assembly, the king announced yesterday. However, they are still forbidden from driving; need written permission from a male guardian to travel, work or attend school; and will be excluded from elections due this week.

Thursday’s municipal polls – which have been delayed two years – are likely to be attacked for going ahead as an all-male affair, despite the reforming note struck by the king in a speech opening the Majlis ash-Shura.

“Because we refuse to marginalise 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 next term,” he said. “Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote.”

News of the reform was welcomed by activists. “Excited, excited, excited and happy,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a long-time women’s rights campaigner in the kingdom. “We feel that we are complete citizens for the first time . . . or at least partly. This is the first recognition for public participation by Saudi women ever.”

Khaled al-Maeena, the liberal editor of the Arab News newspaper, said that he was not surprised by the king’s decision. “The king is a realist . . . He is very much concerned about Saudi Arabia. He feels that if it is not on the train of progress then it will be left behind,” Mr Maeena said.

He pointed out that, in 2005, on one of his first trips abroad, the king took a party of business people to China, including many women. In February 2009, he appointed a female deputy minister of education.

“Saudi women are not different from women elsewhere in the Muslim world . . . The pace is slow but I feel that the king’s statement today will really enhance women’s participation in all fields,” Mr Maeena said.

Although viewed as a liberalising force, King Abdullah has been careful to maintain the support of the conservative religious establishment and of members of his ruling al-Saud family.

In March, two months after popular revolutions erupted in north Africa and began spreading across the Arab world, King Abdullah delivered a speech that disappointed democracy activists by ignoring calls for increased political participation.

Instead, he increased civil service salaries and made the criticism of religious scholars a criminal offence. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011)