The right to vote has long been a crucial aim of gender equality and, more recently, human rights movements in all parts of the world. Participation in a nation’s political system is largely seen as a route to better standards of living. Since elected representatives are, in theory, motivated to do the best thing for those whose votes they wish to win again in the future, gaining suffrage is the first step to getting your voice heard. Unfortunately, the right to vote is often coupled with very restrictive political systems, which limit the extent to which change benefits the citizens – Saudi Arabia is no exception.
At first glance, therefore, the fact that the kingdom’s government has allowed women to vote in municipal elections for the first time is difficult to analyse. Both cynicism and rash optimism are easy traps to fall into when observing the internal politics of a country so different from our own, perhaps most noticeably when it comes to the social position of women. Saudi Arabia is not exactly a haven for human rights – far from it.
Saudi Arabia is not exactly a haven for human rights – far from it.
The government does not seem any closer to abolishing either capital or corporal punishment, and is still able to make arbitrary arrests with little accountability. This is because, fundamentally, the extension of suffrage to women does not represent a move away from the kingdom’s autocratic systems of governance. In a sense, this has less to do with the gender issue than the wider question of democratic participation – if you’re a Saudi citizen lacking connections to the royal family or bureaucratic class, you’ll have little opportunity to change the way the country is run. However, the exclusion of women from even the municipal level has meant that they are particularly restricted both legally and by cultural conservatism. Perhaps the central tenet of both these two factors has been the preservation of the male guardianship system, whereby women rely on representation by their husband, father or other male relative in all situations where they interact with the state, including the judicial system.
It is this system which has preserved the many limits on Saudi women’s physical movement with, for example, the country’s infamous female driving ban confining many to spaces approved by male guardians. Even those with relaxed families may have little opportunity to make spontaneous trips to go shopping or visit friends if their drivers are unavailable. Indeed, although women are able to work outside the home in Saudi Arabia, many employers require written consent from the applicant’s male guardian.
In recent years, relaxation of employment laws has meant women represent a growing proportion of the work force, but the male guardianship system leaves those with strict husbands, fathers or brothers behind. Male guardians are often influenced by various social pressures such as religious norms, as well as ideas of shame and honour which place the man in the role of protector and provider. These pressures appear to limit the immediate impact of political reforms, giving women more legal freedoms.
In this context, the fact that women have not only been allowed to vote but also to run for election appears to represent an important shift in attitudes towards gender roles. Even though the turnout among female voters in last week’s municipal was pretty low, those who did make it to the polling stations highlight that at least some part of Saudi society is ready to let women participate in the country’s politics.
some part of Saudi society is ready to let women participate in the country’s politics.
This may be due in part to the legacy of the late King Abdullah, who passed away in January this year. In the final years of his reign, Abdullah appointed several women to both the Cabinet and the consultative Shura Council, which provides the government with religious advice. Indeed, it was he who decreed that women would participate in this year’s municipal elections, a fact which discounts the idea that the development is a publicity stunt designed to distract from the kingdom’s interference in the Syrian and Yemeni crises. The current monarch, Salman, differs from his predecessor with regards to foreign policy aims, as shown by his central role in the ongoing military intervention in Yemen. Of course, this is not to deny any continuity between the two, especially as Saudi Arabia’s position on Syria has remained essentially the same.
These elections, which have fallen within weeks of international talks on both Yemen and Syria, do suggest that they may form part of the kingdom’s wider public relations strategy. Perhaps, the Saudi government hopes that increasing women’s rights might lessen the number of pesky questions about human rights they have to deal with when meeting foreign heads of state.
However, it would be wrong to dismiss the importance of women’s suffrage for this reason. Twenty women succeeded in being elected to municipal councils throughout the country – this represents more than diplomatic window-dressing.