Well it wasn’t exactly the scores of sister suffragettes parading through the streets (à la Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins), but a major step forward towards women’s equality was announced today. King Abdullah has declared that women can vote in the next round of municipal elections and can even run as candidates to sit on the municipal boards. Further, he proclaimed that he will appoint some women to serve on the Shoura advisory council. The last major announcement that boosted public participation for women was two years ago, when King Abdullah appointed a woman to be the deputy minister of education.
You have to realize, though, that Saudi Arabia only had its first elections in 2005. These were for seats on the municipal councils and only males over the age of 21 were allowed to vote. Only half of the seats on these councils were up for grabs too (the other half were appointed by the government). Voter turn-out then was just 30%, so it’s not like the men were clamoring to participate in these elections either.
The next round of municipal elections were supposed to be held in 2009, but were ostensibly postponed to “study the previous election” and consider the issue of allowing women to participate. It was evidently considered v-e-r-y carefully as now, two years later, this announcement comes out. The timing of this announcement is very interesting too. The new date for these delayed elections is this Thursday – too late for the women to participate this time around. They’ll have to wait another 4 years to participate (assuming they keep to their schedule).
Now don’t get me wrong – I do think that this is a significant step forward for Saudi Arabia. But I also think that this is a ‘low-hanging fruit’ for the government to grab onto, riding on the back of the increasing presence of women in the media. Given the pervasiveness of internet and satellite TV across Saudi Arabia, Saudi women (especially the younger generation) have already been expressing their opinions and voices – through social media, commentaries, blogs (e.g. saudiwoman’s weblog or a saudi woman’s voice). Marching over to the local electoral station (I wouldn’t be surprised to see separate ‘bachelor’ and ‘family’ sections anyway) to stand in an enclosed ballot booth to cast your vote is a no-brainer in terms of implementing the election. (It’s not like the election will increase the opportunity for men and women to mingle, heaven forbid.) The significance is that now Saudi society will encounter the voice of millions of Saudi women (assuming they all vote) … on municipal issues.
It’s a start.