This year the world witnessed Saudi Arabia's first nation-wide municipal elections inclusive of women voters. In accordance with national Saudi Arabia law, all 'citizens' have the right to vote. By definition women and men are citizens of Saudi Arabia. Therefore, a restriction of women’s voting right is contrary to the country's election law, which does not explicitly ban women from voting. However, women are subject to ample restrictions in the country including political restrains.
The law of the country denies gender equality to its citizen and this inequality is inbuilt into its governmental and social structure. Since time immemorial, women in Saudi Arabia have been legally obligated to be accompanied by men for the performance of any public activity. The existing stringent regulations have been put in place to ensure that the women of the nation have limited or no freedom. Without written permission from a male guardian, they may not travel, get an education or work. Regardless of permissions, they are not allowed to drive, mix with men in public or leave their homes without covering themselves in black cloaks, called abayas. The country falls in the last segment in the U.N. Report for Global Gender Equality as women are still unable to open a bank account or get a passport on their own, and many are unable to travel without a male companion in Saudi. It is also the last country in the world to retain a gender-specific ban on political suffrage.
The need for withdrawing the mandatory male guardianship from the country has been universally felt and many scholars and activists have asserted the same. Adam Coogle, a renowned Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that Saudi authorities should allow Saudi women to have “full control over all of the major decisions that affect their lives. Only then will Saudi Arabia’s women be able to contribute to society on an equal footing with men.”
Until the 2011 elections women in the country were denied all political rights. The reasons for the denial of these rights was argued to be the absence of a substantial number of women to monitor female polling stations and that a limited number of women held identity cards which are mandatory for voting in any election. Getting identity cards was an impossible task for women in the country because the photographs in the card would reveal their face that which was prohibited by law. However, in contradiction to status quo, in September 2011, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and stand in the 2015 municipal elections.
The announcement that women would be granted the right to both vote and stand for election came late but was still a widely appreciated declaration. The declaration also stated that women would be eligible to take part in the unelected shura. Majlis a Shura or Shura Council is the formal advisory body of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has received heavy criticism for its treatment of women. In this scenario including women participation in political field can been referred to as a "cautious reform" in the fundamentalist state, where women are strictly denied civic freedoms or any public role. From a legal perspective this can be considered as a progressive step but on the contrary women are still deprived of its benefits owing to the poor security in the nation. Consider this, in Afghanistan, violence and the influence of the Taliban in certain areas meant female turnout in the 2009 presidential election was low. In one area with an estimated population of between 35,000 and 50,000, the district governor said no women had voted at all.
It is believed that the revolutionary driving protests by women in Saudi Arabia served to be a landmark moment for women’s rights in a country that has received heavy criticism for treatment of its women. Although the expected object of reform was never accomplished an existing assumption is that the said protest became the driving force behind the movement to include women in political forum.
Scholars and experts have dubious views on the said step but unanimously deem it to be a very big deal for women themselves and hope that it will gradually liberate women from the strict gender based restrictions that bar them from all the elements of public life.
The society is very conservative and to welcome such a drastic change will be a slow and gradual process. Nevertheless this wind of change has had an empowering impact on women. Women in the country have started secret workshops to help Saudi women learn about the voting process to avoid detection by the government, which considers large political gatherings illegal.
All in all, this move is quintessential towards making women equal to their male counterparts. The first of its kind with numerous accelerated reforms still in queue keeping the younger generation hopeful and excited by the possibility of change.
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Masiya Mzilikazi Masingita, Saudi Arabia sees first female voter, available at, http://drum.co.za/news/saudi-arabia-sees-first-female-voter-registrations, last accessed on 25 September, 2015.
Coogle Adam, Dispatches: Saudi Women Registering to Vote is a Star, available at, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/08/20/dispatches-saudi-women-registering-vote-start, last accessed on 25th September, 2015.
Saudi Arabia to hold elections next month after year and a half delay, available at, http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2011/03/22/saudi_arabia_to_hold_elections_next_month_after_year_and_a_half_delay.html, last accessed on 3rd October, 2015.
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Katherine Zoepf, Talk of Women’s Rights Divides Saudi Arabia, available at, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/01/world/middleeast/01iht-saudi.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0, last accessed on 25 September, 2015.