Saudi women are granted the right to vote. Now what?

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?’

The NYTimes reports,

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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Saudi Women’s campaign for the right to drive in action today

Saudi women’s rights activists arrested for challenging driving ban
Saudi women risk arrests, beatings in efforts to register to vote
Women in Saudi Arabia still can’t drive

Join the Conversation

  • Cate

    I think it’s worth mentioning when we write about this change in law that women will be allowed to vote WITH the permission of a male relative. There will still be women who are not allowed to vote under this new law because the men in their families do not want them to.

    But I do think that it is a good thing. Even if voting does not do very much in SA, it makes a difference for a marginalized group to be offered access to an act that a more privileged group has access to. It may not be the best, concession, but the fact is that women and the men who support women’s rights in SA have wrenched a concession from their government through their tireless activism. Hopefully this will garner more support for feminist efforts in SA, and lead to more concessions, including but not limited to driving.

  • davenj

    Wow, the king of a monarchy granting the vote. How benevolent of him.

    Now what? I’ll tell you what, the world keeps pretending Saudi Arabia’s human rights record isn’t abominably bad, and in return the Saudi monarchy keeps supplying about a fifth of the world’s crude petroleum. Such is the corrupt bargain we strike to supply our energy demands.

    It’s not even a concession! The country’s a monarchy! Giving women the “vote” in a repressive monarchy is like putting lifeboats on a jetliner: looks good at first glance, but then one realizes it doesn’t mean a thing.

    It is what you said it is: a media opportunity. Saudi Arabia makes a tacit, valueless “human rights” gesture to give it some “Arab Spring” cred, then silently goes back to brutal repression while monarchs use control of massive oil wealth to build extravagant fortunes and buy off enough of the country to contain power, often through employing theocrats to do the “heavy lifting” of repression and subjugation.