In an unprecedented move, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia granted women the right to vote this past Sunday. Women in Saudi Arabia have been organizing on a variety of fronts, pushing for political representation, fighting for the right to drive and for more mobility in public since as of right now women have to be chaperoned when in public. While the right to vote is a marginal step forward and a great media opportunity in the face of a how terrible Saudia Arabia looks internationally on the issue of women’s rights. But the real question many activists are asking is, ‘will this actually make women’s lives that different?’
Even under the new law, it was unclear how many women would take part in elections. In many aspects of life, men — whether fathers, husbands or brothers — prevent women from participating in legal activities. Public education for women took years to gain acceptance after it was introduced in 1960.
Some analysts described the king’s choice as the path of least resistance. Many Saudis have been loudly demanding that all 150 members of the Shura be elected, not appointed. 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, an idea fiercely opposed by some of the most powerful clerics and princes. Even as the king made the political announcement, activists said that one prominent opponent of the ban, Najla al-Hariri, was being questioned Sunday for continuing her stealth campaign of driving.
Activists remain hopeful but there is some bitter irony that a country who’s chief export is oil–a commodity that allows people, including women, to drive all over the world–does not allow the women in it’s own country to drive.
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