By Katarina Allen ’12
On Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011 Saudi Arabia’s King Adullah announced that women will have the right to vote in local elections held in 2015. Not only will women be able to vote in elections, but also nominate themselves for membership in Municipal Councils and participate in the nomination of candidates. The local elections in Saudi Arabia began on Sept. 29, 2011, and five days later, women were given these rights. It will be four more year before they can vote in an election.
As the United States gears up for its next presidential election in 2012, events in Saudi Arabia underscore how far this country has come since women earned the right to vote 95 years ago with the Nineteenth Amendment. US National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor responded to this announcement, saying “These reforms recognize the significant contributions women in Saudi Arabia make to their society and will offer them new ways to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and communities.” The move, according to Vietor, is “an important step forward in expanding the rights of women in Saudi Arabia.”
Professors at Sweet Briar College feel that this announcement is great news for the increasing role of women in politics around the world. Padmini Coopamah, assistant professor and co-chair of the department of government and international affairs, when asked about the signifiacne of Saudi women’s suffrage, replied, “VERY. It may not be for national elections, and things may be a little rocky at first, but political rights are such that, once you give them, they consolidate over time and lead to other rights. Obviously the royal family, the House of Saud, has a tight grip on power, so we are not talking about the appearance of democracy any time soon, but I think this is a preemptive step in the kingdom in reaction to the Arab spring and the agitation by Saudi women in recent months for more rights.”
When asked if suffrage would lead to other liberal policy changes on the part of the Saudi government, Maria El-Abd ’12, responded, “As far as I know there is nothing in the Quran forbidding women from voting in Islam, just as there’s nothing forbidding them from driving. As long as she’s doing nothing wrong, why not let her drive? If they’re doing this to protect women, I would think letting them drive by themselves is certainly better than having a strange man chauffeur them wherever they need to go.”
Coopamah thinks predicting further changes in Saudi Arabian policies towards women is not easy. “Difficult to say, it is not the most transparent regime in the world. There is a more modernist faction, but the traditionalists have a firm grip. It would be nice to see some changes like women not needing male relatives to escort them everywhere, but it is hard to say how soon (or if) such a change in social practice is likely to happen,” said Coopamah.
El-Abd added that this change was a long time coming, but not exclusive to Saudi Arabia. “Women, not just in Saudi Arabia, but throughout the world, have been seeking equality for a while. Even in America, efforts to receive equal pay for the same job are still going on. By no means is this a trend exclusive to the Middle East,” said El-Abd.
In an interview with CNN, Saudi women’s rights activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider stated, “Women’s voices will finally be heard. Now it’s time to remove other barriers like not allowing women to drive cars and not being able to function and live a normal life without a male guardian.”
Contact Katarina Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments.