Women Still Sidelined in Saudia Arabia

While charitable observers say the king's decision to allow women to vote emanates from liberalism, the real motivation is the monarchy's fears over the regional anti-authoritarian upheaval.

James Kirchick
James Kirchick
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James Kirchick
James Kirchick

All Hail King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques! The monarch of Saudi Arabia is a great and generous man, who not only supplies the world with his land's precious black crude (at cartel-inflated prices ), but one who deeply cares for his people. Occasionally, out of the goodness of his heart, he will pardon a rape victim from flogging. Last week, he canceled a ruling that would have seen a woman lashed 10 times for the grave offense of driving a car. The king must be going soft. After all, by being raped and sitting behind the steering wheel, these uncouth women have "dishonored" their families.

To fully appreciate the king's liberalism, witness his latest announcement, made before the Shura council of advisers. "We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society," the king declared. And so he took the bold step of granting his women (the possessive pronoun is crucial; neither Saudi women, nor men, are "citizens" in the true sense of the word ) the right to vote - in meaningless municipal elections, in 2015, and only if they receive the permission of a male relative.

That last condition has gone practically unreported in the international media, which have covered these latest developments with the sort of gravity that is reserved for actual, people-driven upheavals in the rest of the Arab world. Indeed, one could be mistaken for thinking that King Abdullah is a genuine reformer, given all the favorable attention he has received of late.

Last December, Businessweek praised the king as a "vigorous and progressive leader." A writer for the Global Post website, prompted by the king's recent announcement, says that Abdullah is leader of the "progressive faction of the ruling family" (presumably, that's the one that favors mere lashings, as opposed to decapitation, for homosexuals ). Reuters claimed that the king had "lived up to his reformist reputation" with his "liberal shift."

The same press that lauds a man whose regime bans the construction of Christian churches and prohibits the entry of Jews into the kingdom sees Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman as the real fanatics of the Middle East.

To be sure, in the desert despotism of Saudi Arabia, words like "progressive" and "reformer" are relative. But they lose their meaning when applied to individuals who are religious fundamentalists. "It is as if the world is congratulating a man for enslaving only 10 women in his basement this week because last week he enslaved 11," wrote David Keyes of the organization Advancing Human Rights.

While more charitable observers say that the king's decision to allow women to vote emanates from his innate liberalism, the real motivation is the monarchy's fears over the regional anti-authoritarian upheaval. Abdullah and his supporters, meanwhile, accept neither explanation: They claim that granting voting rights to women is predicated upon nothing more complex than a proper - albeit belated - reading of Islamic law.

There is indeed no proscription against female enfranchisement in the Koran, although the notion of elections itself was alien to the men who wrote Islam's holy book. There is also no prohibition on women driving. The variety of regulations that place Saudi women in a state of virtual slavery is a deliberately misogynistic interpretation of a centuries-old religious text that sanctions male "guardianship" over women.

The Saudi monarch's convenient epiphany about the true meaning of Islamic doctrine is reminiscent of the Mormon Church's 1978 decision to allow blacks to enter its priesthood. That decision arrived after a spate of embarrassing publicity, and took the form of a highly opportune intercession by none other than the Lord himself, who "revealed" to the Church leadership that admittance into the Mormon clergy must be made "without regard for race or color."

It's unclear to what extent King Abdullah's decision is supported by his subjects. It may take some time for Saudi men, inured to treating women like property, to get used to being asked by their wives and daughters if they can vote.

"Now it's driving," a 25-year-old Saudi man recently complained to the BBC about calls to let women drive. "After five years it will be taking off the abaya, after 10 years they will ask to be allowed to wear short skirts." Before you know it, Saudi women will be asking to relieve themselves of chattel status.

James Kirchick is a contributing editor of The New Republic.

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