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Women win suffrage in Saudi Arabia

October 6th, 2011

The 87-year-old King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia took a massive step in improving women’s equality when he ruled that they are eligible to vote. However, they will still not be able to vote in this week’s elections.

They will have to wait until 2015. But that delay has not stifled the excitement.

“We’re so excited. We believe it’s the response to our demands, the first step in our long struggle to get our rights,” said Hatoon Al-Fassi, a professor in Ridyah, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Many are hopeful that this will lead to other reforms. For example, Saudi Arabia is still the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. Less than 48 hours after King Abdullah’s speech, a woman name Shaima Ghassaniya was found guilty of driving. She will receive at least 10 lashings.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, right, arrives at the Saudi Shura Council, or advisory assembly, ahead of delivering a speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011. Saudi King Abdullah has given the kingdom's women the right to vote for first time in nationwide local elections, due in 2015. (AP Photo)

Saudi Arabia has often been criticized for lagging behind the rest of world in its treatment of women. For example, women were not allowed to attend school until the 1960s. Even now, women cannot make the decision to pursue an education on their own. Male family members must give a woman permission to go to school, or to travel, or even to receive health care.

Even if women tackle those obstacles and manage to acquire an education, it is a nightmare for them to find employment. Roughly 58 percent of the student population in Saudi Arabia is female, but only 16 percent of women are employed.

But it is important to not be ethnocentric. Saudi Arabia has a much different culture. It is dominated byWahhabism, an extremely conservative view. The Wahhabi movement was largely responsible for getting the Ottoman Empire out of Saudi Arabia and helped form the modern state. Consequently, the movement is very influential in Saudi Arabia.

Wahhabism is not mainstream Islam.

It is a very literal and conservative reading of Islam that has left some Islamic scholars puzzled. Zeki Saritoprak, of the John Carroll theology and religious studies department, said, “I don’t understand why they have waited so long … Because in Islam, woman has a very important place, the Prophet made it very clear that man and woman are equal.”

But even with that conservative view, the condition of woman in Saudi Arabia is “not as bad as it seems,” said Saritoprak. While women may not have much public power, they do have “a lot of influence in the household.” But Saritoprak insists that they do need more rights and believes that it may be possible.

But even with the king’s support, there is no guarantee of additional reform.

It will be difficult to have equal treatment of women as long as the conservative clerics have tremendous influence over the king’s policies. However, Saritoprak views that the power of Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia is fading.  Women’s suffrage is a testament to that.

External forces may also help influence the king towards equality. For example Turkey might have an influence. “Turkey shows how an Islamic country can be ruled democratically,” said Saritoprak, and Turkey has “very good relations with Saudi Arabia.”  That, combined with the pro-democratic Arab Spring, may have substantial influence on Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women.

Regardless of further reforms, this is certainly a step in the right direction.

Whether Saudi Arabia continues to promote equality cannot be determined, but as the world continues to respect these rights and the citizens’ of Saudi Arabia continue to see that, it will be harder for the religious conservatives to hold sway over the population.