Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud announced on Sunday that women will be given the right to vote and to run in future municipal elections. Women will also be able to join the advisory Shura Council, a formal body that advises the king and that is said to be the most influential political body in the country. Said the king in a five-minute speech:
“Because we refuse to marginalise women in society in all roles that comply with sharia (Islamic law), we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulama (clerics) and others… to involve women in the Shura Council as members, starting from the next term.”
“Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote.”
The unrest that has swept the Mideast in the Arab Spring earlier this year has not led in Saudi Arabia to the wide-scale protests that occurred in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. Small protests have occurred in Saudi Arabia’s eastern oil-producing region where the majority of the population is Shiite. The Saudi government also sent its army into neighboring Bahrain to quell anti-government protests there. Aware of all this, the Saudi government pledged some $93 billion in financial support for jobs and services in March.
In addition, Saudi women’s groups have staged public protests to call for an end to the country’s ban on women driving and garnered a great deal of attention via social media; in January, female activists started a campaign on social networking websites to call for the right for women to vote and run in municipal elections.
While noting that the king’s latest decision will not be welcomed by all, activists hailed the change:
Saudi writer Nimah Ismail Nawwab told the BBC, ”This is something we have long waited for and long worked towards.”
She said activists had been campaigning for 20 years on driving, guardianship and voting issues.
Another campaigner, Wajeha al-Huwaider, said the king’s announcement was “great news”.
“Now it is time to remove other barriers like not allowing women to drive cars and not being able to function, to live a normal life without male guardians,” she told Reuters news agency.
Elections to fill half the seats in the kingdom’s 285 municipal councils (the government fills the other half) were first held in 2005. More than 5,000 men will compete in the Thursday elections which are only the second in Saudi Arabia’s history. As women are currently excluded from the ballot, more than 60 Saudi intellectuals and activists have called for a boycott.
Saudi Arabia enforces a strict version of Sunni Islamic law. Women in the ultra-conservative Gulf kingdom are not allowed to drive, travel or work or undergo medical procedures without the approval of a male relative. Men and women are segregated in public and the king’s announcement did not address these broader issues. 88-year-old King Abdullah has been regarded as a “cautious reformer,” says the New York Times. He has built a new university for students of both sexes and women have been encouraged to work, but he has so far done little to change the political system since he became Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler in 1995 when King Fahd became ill. Abdullah became king after Fahd died in 2005.
The king’s announcement was made just days before municipal elections in which women will be excluded — it will only be after four more years, in 2015, that women will be able to participate in elections.
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