King Abdullah’s recent announcement that women in Saudi Arabia will be able to vote and serve office in 2015 is just too little, too late.
I understand the announcement’s newsworthiness, but for a king who presented himself as a reformer when he first succeeded to the throne his reforms so far have been disappointing and slow.
Yes, this is a step forward for one of the only countries in the world to score below a whole point for female political empowerment in the 2010 World Economic Forum global gender gap report, but the appalling news of a Saudi woman facing 10 lashes for driving—when she was rushing a family member to the hospital!—only solidifies the need for a fuller and more urgent package of reform. (Some have even seen Jastaniah’s arrest as a reaction by conservative Saudi judges to Abdullah’s suffrage announcement.)
Even though women will be able to run in municipal elections and be appointed to the Shura Council, how effective will these reforms be when women are still segregated in public from men and unable to travel inside or outside of the country without male chaperones (or will we refer to them as bodyguards now?)? Driving, on the other hand, is something that affects every Saudi family.
At the same time, some Saudi women defend these restrictions, including rules of guardianship. Some see it as a way to preserve their conservative lifestyle or, in religious terms, as rules mandated by Sharia. Cultural change happens slowly. Look at Afghanistan or Iraq, where some of their female political candidates have worn the full burqa and in certain cases did not even make their names public knowledge in fear of their safety. How can a woman run for office if no one knows who she is?
However, just south in Kuwait, four women were elected to office after their Parliament permitted women’s suffrage in 2005. And who are we to talk? Women have had the right to vote in the U.S. since 1920, and yet women still only make up 17 percent of our Congress today.
Obviously Saudi Arabia has to start somewhere; however, King Abdullah needs to open his eyes and see what matters most now. Driving may not seem significant, but giving women the right to drive will change the Saudi way of life.
A recent Change.org petition highlights this need best:
“Unable to drive, [Saudi] women are forced to hire drivers—which can be expensive and dangerous—or rely on waiting for male relatives to find the time to drive them around. The ban is not only a daily inconvenience but it has also exposed many women to financial, social, and psychological exploitation by their male relatives and drivers.”
As I said, change takes time—but it’ll take even longer if women aren’t treated as an ally.