The patriarch has spoken. In a slow short speech on 25 September, the king of Saudi Arabia said that women will be able to vote and run for political office. But not for at least four years: the announcement was conveniently timed to be just too late for them to join in last week’s local elections, which even the men couldn’t get too excited about. They showed their disappointment with very low voter turnout, blank ballots and all-out boycotts.
The king also said that women may be appointed to the Shura Council. But since his speech was for the opening of the council’s fifth session, women will have to wait until at least 2013 to walk the segregated halls of ‘power’. Municipal councils and the Shura have very little if any real influence on decision making in the kingdom, or on women’s daily lives. It’s a symbolic move. Regardless of gender, power in Saudi Arabia is in the hands of a very few people.
The Shura, if left to its own devices, probably wouldn’t accept women. How many will have to be hand-picked by the king to counterbalance the backward and demeaning view some Shura members have of them? (Last May, during a fierce debate over new laws allowing Saudi women to marry foreigners, the headline in al-Hayat said: ‘Shura members: a foreigner will not marry a Saudi woman for the beauty of her eyes but for money and nationality.’) What kind of meaningful debate will they be able to have through a screen between separate rooms? One of the few details to have emerged is that there will be no mixing. The justice minister was quick to point out they will build a separate entrance for the precious new recruits to avoid any accidental encounters with men.
‘Within religious constraints’ was the key phrase in the king’s speech. He said it several times after introducing each of the new reforms, and again at the end of the speech for good measure.
When the government finally allowed women to carry ID cards a decade ago, they made sure there was a catch. I could only get an ID if my guardian first went to open a file for me and signed a consent form. The illusion of my being an independent woman depended on my father’s being OK with it. The same goes for getting into university, getting a job or travelling.
Will I be able to get a voter registration card without my guardian’s permission? It seems unlikely. What if I want to run for election? Does he have to quit his job and stay with me all day while I campaign, sign all my forms and drive me around? Or will I get a budget from the government for a driver? Maybe I’ll run on a platform of public transport for all.
If change is to come to Saudi Arabia it won’t be through royal decrees.