King Abdullah of Saudi ArabiaÂ on Sunday granted women the right to vote and run in future municipal elections, the biggest change in a decade for women in a puritanical kingdom that practices strict gender separation, including banning women from driving.
Saudi women, who are legally subject to male chaperones for almost any public activity, hailed the royal decree as an important, if limited, step toward making them equal to their male counterparts. They said the uprisings sweeping the Arab world for the past nine months â€” along with sustained domestic pressure for womenâ€™s rights and a more representative form of government â€” prompted the change.
â€œThere is the element of the Arab spring, there is the element of the strength of Saudi social media and there is the element of Saudi women themselves, who are not silent,â€ said Hatoon al-Fassi, a history professor and one of the women who organized a campaign demanding the right to vote earlier this spring. â€œPlus, the fact that the issue of women has turnedÂ Saudi ArabiaÂ into an international joke is another thing that brought the decision now.â€
Although political activists celebrated the change, they also cautioned how deep it would go, and how fast. Some women wondered aloud how they would be able to campaign for office when they were not even allowed to drive. There is also a long history of royal decrees stalling, as weak enactment collides with the bulwark of traditions ordained by the Wahabi sect of Islam and its fierce resistance to change.
In his announcement, the king said that women would be appointed to the Majlis Al-Shura, a consultative council that advises the monarchy on matters of public policy. But it is a largely toothless body that avoids matters of royal prerogative, like where all the nationâ€™s oil revenue goes.
â€œWe refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society, in all fields of work according to the guidelines of Islamic law,â€ the king said in an annual address to the Shura that was broadcast nationally, noting during the five minutes he spent on the subject that senior religious scholars had endorsed the change.
King Abdullah, the 87-year-old monarch who has a reputation for pushing reforms opposed by some of his half brothers among the senior princes, said the monarchy was simply following Islamic guidelines, and that those who shun such practices are â€œarrogant.â€
Some analysts described the kingâ€™s choice as the path of least resistance. This year, many Saudis have been loudly demanding that all 150-members of the Shura be elected, not appointed as they are now. By suddenly putting women in the mix, activists feared, the government might use the excuse of integration to delay introducing a nationally elected council.
Political participation for women is also a less contentious issue than granting them the right to drive. Even as the king made the political announcement, activists said that Najla al-Hariri was being hauled in for questioning on Sunday for continuing her stealth campaign of driving.
Mrs. Hariri has been vociferous in demanding the right as a single mother who cannot afford one of the ubiquitous foreign chauffeurs to ferry her children to school. In recent weeks, a woman even drove down King Fahd Expressway, the main thoroughfare through downtown Riyadh, activists said.
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