There’s good news and bad news for advocates of women’s rights in the Arab world: Saudi Arabia has announced that women in the country will for the first time be able to vote and stand in municipal elections in 2015. The bad news is that they will probably have to walk to the polling stations.
Only hours after there was general applause for Saudi King Abdullah’s “revolutionary and historic” decision to give women the municipal vote, a court in the country sentenced a woman to 10 lashes for challenging a ban on women driving in the kingdom.
True, the punishment has been overturned by the king. But the entire episode does not say much for the status of women in Saudi Arabia – and the king’s chances of even ensuring a slow, snail-paced reform of his country.
It is indeed a pity that the world’s richest, most influential and most powerful Arab state continues to treat half of its citizens as irresponsible children who cannot be trusted to become full-fledged adult citizens of the 21st Century.
The Muslim world would be a very different place if instead of fighting against modernity and equality, the Saudi monarchy used its riches and influence to promote equal opportunities, freedom and democracy.
For the moment those looking for inspiration in reconciling Islam and modernity have to learn lessons from Turkey or Indonesia.
Many Muslim countries squirm in the Saudi grip – complaints against the spread of Wahhabi values are rife in Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and elsewhere – but most people are reluctant to denounce the encroaching Saudi influence on their lifestyles. Indonesian scholars of Islam are the exception.
It is women who bear the brunt. Life for women in many parts of the Muslim world is not easy. There is discrimination at home and in the work place, multiple constraints and traditions to follow, rules and values that have to be respected, men who have to be “obeyed”.
The contagion is spreading to Muslim communities in Europe where France and Belgium have recently enacted legislation banning women from wearing the burqa.
Saudi Arabia is the worst offender. Women are not only veiled and segregated but cannot work, own property or even open a bank account without their father’s or husband’s permission.
Despite the king’s decision to over-rule the court, women are also denied the right to drive.
Women are key actors in the demand for change and reform that continues to convulse the Arab world. They must be supported in their determination to have a voice and a role to play in a post-revolution Middle East.
It’s happened before: women take part in a revolution but are instructed to stay home and stay quiet once the upheaval is over.
King Abdullah certainly deserves credit for his decision to give women the right to vote, to run in municipal elections and to be appointed as full voting members of the Majlis Al-Shura, a government advisory group.
It is a first step toward moving his country into the modern world but it is not nearly enough