King Abdullah Gives Saudi Women Right to Vote for First Time

King Abdullah Gives Saudi Women Right to Vote for First Time
Saudi women are seen in Riyadh. Photographer: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia granted women the right to vote for the first time in its modern history as part of changes King Abdullah said will let them run in future municipal elections.

“We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society in every field of work,” Abdullah said yesterday on state television. “Women have the right to submit their candidacy for municipal council membership and have the right to take part in submitting candidates in accordance with Shariah.”

Saudi Arabia enforces gender restrictions interpreted from the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Men and women are strictly segregated in public, including at schools, restaurants and lines at fast-food takeouts. That keeps women out of sales jobs in malls and stores, unless the outlet caters exclusively to a female clientele, and they are also barred from driving.

The king also said yesterday women can now be part of the Shoura Council, his advisory body. Abdullah, who was born in 1924, has promised to improve the status of women and opened the first co-educational university in 2009. He appointed the kingdom’s first female deputy minister, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, the same year and has said he will provide women more access to jobs.

“We hope that with Saudi women going to the municipal council, they will be able to drive in the future,” Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, president of the Human Rights First Society, said in a phone interview from al-Khobar in eastern Saudi Arabia yesterday. “It is a huge step forward.”

Consulting Scholars

The Riyadh-based Shoura Council, a 150-member assembly, is appointed by the king to advise on legislation. The assembly consists of 12 committees, covering topics such as human rights, foreign affairs and energy. The council, whose current speaker is Abdullah Al al-Sheikh, is permitted to propose draft laws and present them to the king.

Abdullah said the decision was taken “after consultations with many of our scholars.” He said broader participation by women in society would contribute to national development.

Saudi leaders have failed to deliver on past promises to expand women’s rights. In 2005, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said women may be allowed to vote in future municipal elections. Instead, they have been excluded from the ballot on Sept. 29, when about 1.2 million men will elect 816 municipal council members.

Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Riyadh-based activist, said the expansion of the voting franchise masks a refusal by Saudi rulers to grant substantial power to the population.

‘Regime’s Reputation’

“The issue of women is the easy way out, because it can polish the regime’s reputation in the world,” he said in a phone interview yesterday. “People could have gotten the message that they will be enfranchised into the political system. That did not happen.”

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, was ranked the least democratic country in the Middle East in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2010 Democracy Index. An absolute monarchy, it has been ruled by six kings since it was established in 1932.

Yesterday’s announcement marks the second step the king has taken since June to address longstanding demands made by women. That month, the king issued a royal decree requiring that only women work in “shops selling women’s necessities.” The move triggered a Labor Ministry order to lingerie shops and make-up stores to switch their male staff with women.

Challenging Driving Ban

Women in Saudi Arabia got behind the wheels of their cars in June to challenge the authorities’ refusal to lift the world’s only ban on driving by females. The plan to get women with international driving licenses out in their cars followed a campaign that led to the detention of one of the activists, Manal al-Sharif.

In his last televised address to the nation in March, Abdullah ordered sweeping increases in spending, including $67 billion on housing and funds for the military and religious groups that backed the government’s ban on domestic protests.

The measures were aimed at ensuring that unprecedented unrest in the Middle East, where popular movements toppled leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, didn’t spread to his kingdom. Violent clashes persist in Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, Yemen and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia didn’t experience political unrest, though there were limited protests held by the Shiite minority in the kingdom’s Eastern Province.

“We do not allow any threat to the national unity and security of society,” Abdullah said in the speech yesterday. “Reviving tribal pride and playing on the strings of sectarian conflict as well as labeling segments of society and using derogatory epithets and names are contrary to Islam.”

Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain in March to help suppress protests led mostly by Shiite Muslims, a majority in Bahrain, calling for free elections and a constitutional monarchy. Security of the Gulf Cooperation Council states is “indivisible from the kingdom’s,” Abdullah said.

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