Huge step for women’s rights as Saudi allows votes

The world's last bastion of exclusive male power is set to fall with yesterday's announcement that Saudi Arabian women will be allowed to stand and vote in future elections.

WOMEN IN SAUDI ARABIA TO VOTE was the headline on the breaking story yesterday afternoon. The 87-year-old King Abdullah had just announced the decision in a speech at the opening ceremony of the formal advisory council – the Shura – that helps him to run the country.

The significance of the news immediately pushed those six short words to the top of the global news agenda. Analysts were astonished. The richest, most populous and by far the most powerful country in the Arab world has long been seen as a sleeping giant of conservatism – preferring by popular consent to keep to its strict Muslim traditions and restrict any rate of change to little more than a snail’s pace.

Now the sleeping giant had sprung to its feet and embraced womankind.

In a country where the King’s word is law, the new policy means that women will have the right to stand for election and vote in the next municipal elections (in 2015) and also have the right to be appointed to the Shura, the most influential political body in Saudi Arabia. Since the Shura is entirely appointed by the King, it opens the way for women to be included immediately.

Making it all the more surprising was that this will take place in a nation where women are still not allowed to drive, must wear a veil covering their face and must have a guardian (usually a father or husband) who may give permission for marriage and divorce; travel, if under 45; education; employment; opening a bank account; and cosmetic surgery.

Nor has there been an overwhelming women’s protest movement. Most reports from inside Saudi say that, despite a few high profile dissidents, women are generally content with their lot. There are Saudi women’s groups who campaign against liberal Western ideas – claiming, for instance, that having an official guardian is more about love than obedience.

The Saudi King is known as a reformer who acts carefully in order not to offend powerful conservative leaders inside the kingdom. Since taking the throne in 2005, he has modernised the legal and education systems but stopped short of increasing political participation following the recent ‘Arab Spring’ popular revolutions in the region.

A long way to go

Yesterday marked a major step in the long history of women’s rights from ancient Sparta, the first state to give women significant status and freedoms, to the present day where Saudi Arabia was the last significant country to deny women the vote. Many people believe the battle for equality is essentially won.

And yet when the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) came into force in 1981, the USA among others refused to sign. To many, true equality for women is still a long way off and the world still has a lot of changing to do when and if it is ever achieved.

You Decide

  1. Does having the right vote make you feel that you should use it whenever you have the chance?
  2. Can men and women, boys and girls, still be very different while having equal rights – or do equal rights start to remove the differences?

Activities

  1. Write down five inequalities between males and females that you think are most unfair.
  2. Divide into pairs and prepare a two-minute speech to the class that argues for one important change in women's rights that you both believe in.

Some People Say...

“Women's equality has created more problems than benefits.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Which other countries refused to sign CEDAW?
UN members that will not ratify the convention are Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga and two tiny islands Nauru and Palau. All other UN countries are in support.
How can the US, one of the most liberal countries on earth, be in favour of discrimination against women?
The main reason seems to be the strong anti-abortion lobby in America. CEDAW gives women rights to decide questions of sex education and abortion that many religious groups in America passionately oppose.
And 500 years BCE how was it for women in Sparta?
Pretty good. The key factor was that women had property rights – unheard of throughout the rest of the ancient world.

Word Watch

The Shura
also known as the Shura Council has 150 members all of whom are appointed by the King. It cannot pass or enforce laws – only the King can do that. But it is the formal body in Saudi Arabia that advises the King and it can propose laws for him to consider.
Conservative
in this context refers to the powerful religious scholars who advise and consult with the King. Known as the 'ulama' these scholars tend to focus on protecting the laws and traditions of Islam and therefore are often reluctant to change.

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