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Slow progress towards the vote for Saudi women

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Saudi Arabian women started registering to vote from August 22, making them the latest in the list of countries whose women gained some measure of enfranchisement this century. The others have also been Arab: Bahrain in 2002, Oman the following year, Kuwait and Qatar in 2005 and the United Arab Emirates in 2006.

Since women first voted in New Zealand in 1893, equal voting has become a standard of society regardless of the political set-up of the nation: communist and fascist dictatorships, theocracies and liberal democracies all found it desirable to rely in part on the support of a female electorate.  However, Arabian and Gulf countries have been an exception, proving resistant to women’s political emancipation, treating it as un-Islamic, despite the enfranchisement of women in Muslim-majority countries such as Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Indonesia.

These countries had enfranchised women, usually as part of a universal suffrage package, in a project of national redefinition following a nationalist struggle or a popular revolution. Saudi Arabia’s route has been slower and more akin to that which pertained in the United Kingdom. This might seem surprising but Saudi Arabia in the twenty-first century has strong similarities to the state of the UK in the nineteenth century. Both kingdoms could be characterized by their belief that their social institutions and gender divisions are divinely ordained. In both cases theological thought fed into law-making directly: in Saudi Arabia via the ulema, a body of Islamic leaders and jurists, and in the UK through bishops in the House of Lords.

From a wider historical perspective, the slow enfranchisement of women and very gradual spread of representative democracy for both sexes is far from unusual or characteristic only of Muslim societies. In the UK women have voted since 1869 in local elections but the franchise was severely restricted to unmarried women ratepayers. In a manner similar to the way in which women are said to be ‘protected’ by men in conservative Saudi society today, Victorian opponents of women’s suffrage argued that fathers and husbands were responsible for women in all public areas of life under the doctrine of ‘couverture.’ To break with this would be to disturb the divinely ordained natural order of life. This left a loophole for supporters of suffrage: widowed or spinster women who owned property, but had no man to ‘cover’ their rights, could reasonably be given the municipal vote.

Muslim feminists have similarly been obliged to argue within their opponent’s logic. They say that Islam has been distorted by sharia scholars who wish to attribute misogynist tendencies to Islam that the prophet Muhammad did not possess. They argue that the fears awakened in Muslim men by the Westernisation of the women can be interpreted as simply an instance of their believing that males are able to select what is good in Western civilisation and discard bad elements, while women are supposedly unable to choose correctly.

Differences in the Muslim world’s acceptance of women in the political sphere has led to anomalies between countries that have strained international relations in the twenty-first century. By the 1990s two Muslim-majority states with undeniable enmity to the west, Iraq and Iran, had functioning political systems incorporating women who could vote from 1958 and 1963 respectively. Nations friendly to the west, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, denied women a place in political life.  The 1991 Gulf War could be seen to have been fought to stop Iraq, with political gender equality in an elected dictatorship in a one-party state, from taking control of the undemocratic kingdom of Kuwait or threatening the even more repressive kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There was considerable comment in the press and broadcast media that service personnel, including servicewomen, were putting their lives at risk in the protection of states in which women had no voice and were subject to numerous restrictions such as the ban on women driving cars in Saudi Arabia.

Within five years of the endorsement of a ‘War on Terrorism’ by the US Congress on 18 September 2001, all the Arab Peninsular countries had taken steps towards some measure of democracy and all except Saudi Arabia had enfranchised women for national elections. The model here was of a grudging, arms-length enfranchisement where concessions were made in the teeth of conservative opposition. Kuwait, for example, had been a constitutional monarchy with an electorate of male nationals (on a strict nationality test) since 1961. In May 1999 the Emir Jabir al-Ahmad al-Sabah issued a decree granting women the vote but the National Assembly refused to ratify it. It was passed six years later after women mobilised with the help of social media in favour of the enfranchisement, safe in the knowledge that as the Emir of Kuwait had expressed his view; their actions were not a rebellion but loyalty to the nation’s leader. 

Saudi Arabia, the last and most powerful of the Arab peninsular nations, took slow steps toward participatory democracy involving men, with the first municipal elections being held for a male-only electorate in 2005. This was a law made by royal decree, as Saudi Arabia is a realm where the King rules with advice from senior members of the royal family and religious authorities, and via an appointed Consultative Assembly.  Women were not specifically excluded under the decree setting up municipal councils, though there was an assumption that women would not participate as they did not in any other area of public life.  In response to applications to vote by activist women, they were said to have been excluded for administrative reasons, because there were not enough women electoral staff to run women-only registration centres and women rarely had their own photo ID.  Such weak excuses by a spokesman for the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs suggests that opposition to women’s suffrage had lost its former strength and could not prevail.

In 2011 the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said women would be able to vote and stand for office in the municipal elections which were scheduled for December 2015 After his death earlier this year, his successor has been true to his word.  Some 70 women have been put forward to stand for office for the municipal councils whose duties involve managing budgets, urban development and planning. Their election is another step in the very slow movement towards women taking up important public positions in Saudi society.

Again, a comparison with the UK can be fruitful. In the UK, as in Saudi society, a measure of enfranchisement for men preceded advances for women. After the 1884 Reform Act 60% of British men had the national franchise.  Ten years later, the 1894 Local Government Act allowed all women who owned property, regardless of marital status, to vote in local government elections and to stand as Poor Law Guardians and for school boards. As in Saudi Arabia, local government was considered a legitimate area of influence for women, as it covered such matters as education and hygiene, which were seen to be in the women’s sphere in the home. 

On this model, the next advance for Saudi Arabia would be for men to have the right to vote in national elections, then for women to do so. This is unlikely, as there are no plans to turn the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia into a constitutional monarchy like that of the UK. National representation in government, by men or women voting, is a distant goal for reformers.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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