Voting but not driving: what part of progress for Saudi women?
What part of progress? This article is the fifth in a series of articles related to Wikiprogress.
Wikigender’s Community Portal has recently focused on the announcement, by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, of women’s right to vote in the third municipal elections due in 2015. Civic engagement is definitely an important component when measuring the well-being of a society, and the decision was positively welcomed by the media, especially in a country where women’s involvement in public life is very limited. However, some saw it as a small improvement and others as a significant step in women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia. Why? It depends which “progress lens” we use to interpret the decision…
Context: limited human rights
In Saudi Arabia, women are restricted with regards to their freedom of dress and freedom of movement. They are not allowed to leave their house unless they are accompanied by a male guardian (a father, brother, or son). In fact, women are unable to make most basic decisions about their lives without approval from men (including travel, work, healthcare, education, business). Women are also restricted access to certain jobs because of segregation rules.
One striking example of inequality between women and men in Saudi Arabia is that women are not allowed to drive. Although there is no legislation banning women from driving, the ban comes from senior clerics who claim that the ban protects against temptation, as women drivers would have more opportunities to leave home alone and meet male strangers. This means women have to rely on taxi drivers, privately hired drivers or male drivers from the family. King Abdullah is not able to lift the ban, as he depends on the clerics to support his ruling family.
So clearly, the human rights dimension of progress is missing here. This is one progress lens.
For Saudi women it is a difficult situation, especially when so much change has happened in neighbouring countries following the Arab Spring.
Some signs of positive change
So on 17 June 2011, women got organised and started driving across the country, in defiance of the ban. The initiative, called “Women2Drive” was organised on social networking sites (On Twitter: #women2drive) to demand the right for women to drive and travel freely in Saudi Arabia. Although the campaign had a limited impact, it certainly increased the visibility of Saudi women’s demands.
Right to vote
Another, more recent positive change: women will be able to vote and be elected in the municipal elections starting in 2015. And they will become voting members of the “Shura” Council that advises the king. This is an excellent measure to increase women’s voice and participation in the society, if it is indeed implemented.
Surely these two examples indicate some progress – but to a different degree. What part of progress do we need to look at? The broader picture? Or the smaller steps? Current progress? Or future progress? Every progress counts, but…
Small steps need to be accompanied by broader measures
If Saudi women gain the right to vote, this is a huge progress for women in itself. But will that sole measure be enough to show actual progress for women in the country?
Having the right to vote does not necessarily mean that women will vote, be it for security reasons, or because of Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system: indeed, if a male guardian decides that his wife, daughter or sister should not vote, she will still not be able to. This brings us back to the human rights dimension of progress that we mentioned before.
The same applied in Afghanistan, where security issues significantly limited the female turnout in the 2009 presidential election. In particular, “in one area with an estimated population of between 35,000 and 50,000, the district governor said no women had voted at all”.
Small steps of progress can lead to more significant progress if change happens. But for Saudi Arabia the equation does not seem so straightforward, as the country tries to seek modernity without changing its religious heritage.
This means that real progress for women is very difficult to achieve, as traditions discriminating against women prevail: the roots of the problem impeding progress are still there.
So yes, allowing women to vote in Saudi Arabia is progress. But it is only one part of progress.
- Saudi Arabia
- Mobility of Saudi Women
- Sexual Segregation and Male Guardianship in Saudi Arabia
- Women Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia
- Women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)
- Women's Access to Education in the MENA Region
- Women and Business in the MENA region
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 Martin Chulov, Saudi women to be given right to vote and stand for election in four years, The Guardian, 25 September 2011
- ↑ Judith Miller, Saudi Women Can Vote but Face Long Road (Without a Driver's License) to Equality, Foxnews.com, 26 September 2011
- ↑ Al Jazeera and agencies, Saudi women launch bid to defy driving ban, 17 June 2011
- ↑ Jason Burke, Saudi Arabia women test driving ban, The Guardian, 17 June 2011
- ↑ Lubna Hussain, Vote or drive? Saudi women would rather be behind the wheel, NBC News, 5 October 2011
- Life for Saudi women is a constant state of contradiction (The Guardian, 29.09.2011)
- Saudi women to stand trial for driving (The Guardian, 27.09.2011)
- Women need a voice to progress in the Middle East and North Africa region (ProgBlog)