In a move that betrays a desire to be part of the Arab Spring by the most conservative nation in the Middle East, Saudi King Abdullah announced earlier this week that women in the kingdom will be given the right to vote and run for political office in time for the next election in 2015. I hardly contemplate the fact that the right to vote, granted to American women almost one hundred years ago, (and that was late!), is not commonplace all over the world. It seems basic.
When you live in a monarchy, however, the right to vote is almost a non-issue, especially when it’s so far in the future. In addition, though municipal elections in Saudi Arabia were only introduced in 2005, they haven’t been an instrument for change yet. So the right to vote is essentially a symbolic right, and while important, doesn’t hold a candle to Saudi women’s paramount demand, the right to drive solo.
The right to drive alone has long been contested by Saudi women, but traditional Muslim clerics insist that female drivers were not a part of Mohammed’s vision. Arguably, driving was not in Mohammed’s vision at all, nor the Model T Ford, though one must admit the possibility since he ostensibly saw the future, at least according to believers. In any case, women in Saudi Arabia lead a very limited existence, for the most part. As the New York Times reports,
“Women require the permission of a male sponsor, or “mahram,” to travel or undertake much of the commercial activity needed to run a business. They inhabit separate and often inferior spaces in restaurants, banks and health clubs, when they are allowed in at all.”
In fact, one of the most subversive acts a woman can commit in SA is to drive alone, and feminist activists are often accused of carrying on campaigns of “stealth driving.” Clearly the government is more threatened by a woman driving, and the freedom that implies, than they are of women voting. And it makes sense: how can a woman run for office successfully if she can’t move around the country campaigning at least sometimes on her own? Hiring a driver is also cost-prohibitive, so the driving ban particularly affects poorer women, thereby increasing not only the gender but the economic gap as well.
Many have commented that the timing of the King’s decision was well planned to deflect international attention from the case of Najla Hariri, who was sentenced to public flogging for driving earlier this week. There has also been speculation that the announcement was timed to stay competitive in the international oil market. A Canadian oil lobbying group in Washington, EthicalOil, has been trying to make a case that Saudi oil is inherently the most corrupt supplier based on their government’s women’s rights record. So granting women the right to vote may have the effect of earning the Saudis money.