When I, a Saudi female who lives in the city of Jeddah, first heard the news last month that King Abdullah was going to let women vote, my first reaction was, "vote in what?"
As is well known, the country of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. The king has the final say in everything. There is no parliament, no prime minister, not even a constitution.
I suppose democracy must begin somewhere. But what elections was the king even talking about?
Perhaps he meant municipal elections. Those were held for the second time ever earlier this year. Yet when women went to their municipalities to vote, they were turned away at the polls. These women then launched a protest against their lack of a voice (not to mention the nonsensical ban on allowing them to drive), which I view as part of a larger attempt for Saudi women to gain leverage in a male dominated system and society.
Perhaps the king meant elections for the Shura Council, the "formal advisory body" in Saudi Arabia that in theory has the power to propose laws to the King (but not enforce them). That would be more interesting. About time, too!
But there's something missing here. Did he say anything about women driving? About finally legalizing it? Er… No. Apparently the King is fine with women taking a part in deciding which the (symbolic) road the country should take, domestically and internationally, but not in actually driving on that (physical) road.
In any case, the King’s decree is already beginning to look suspiciously ineffective. The fact is that the next municipal elections are scheduled to be held in 2015 and the Shura Council does not directly effect daily life for Saudis (as mentioned, the council merely proposes, not enforces, laws). We need a decree that would bring a positive, practical change to Saudi women's lives, not just lip-service that sounds good – and that the world's media hail as a major milestone – yet makes no real difference at all in anything but perception.
Don’t forget that just two days after the announcement hailed as a landmark in the progress of women's roles in Saudi society, a Saudi woman who drove was sentenced in court to a flogging of 10 lashes as punishment. Of course, there was an international uproar and the sentencing was eventually overturned. Once again the media talked about a huge step forward for Saudi women! Personally, I do not see the revoking of the sentence as something to be celebrated. It is not like no woman would ever be sentenced for driving again.
My pessimism was reinforced when Crown Prince Sultan died (may God have mercy on his soul) and Prince Nayef was announced next in line to the throne. The septuagenarian Nayef is not known for his support of initiatives advancing democracy or women's rights. On the contrary, he "does not see the need for elections or for female members of the Shura council" – both subjects of the decree the world recently celebrated. Nayef has also stated that women's driving is a "non-issue" and "should be decided by society" – whatever that means. On the ground here in Saudi, any mention of the future possibility for women to drive – not to mention other, more basic issues such as guardianship, unfairness in divorce, and child custody – is met with derision. "You think Nayef will even consider it?"
I don't mean to rain on anyone's parade. In fact, I will more than gladly join the parade when it does come – but I will make sure any celebration I take part in stands for a real achievement.
This story is far from over. Here's hoping for a truly huge step forward for Saudi women, and soon. When that time comes, let's hope it's not limited to just driving a car, but an acknowledgement of just how far Saudi has to go in terms of women's rights. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to recognize that support women's rights does not only integrate seamlessly with the true message of Islam, but with our worldwide mission as humans with consciences.