Unbeknownst to the West, Saudi Arabia is changing, and women are gaining more political influence. This article will not be about the fact the Saudi Arabia remains to be ruled by an absolute monarchy, which is a thoroughly medieval system of government. Nor will I discuss the way an appalling brand of extreme Sunni Islam is embraced by the political elite, as Wahhabism is rejected by everyone in the West as regressive and abhorrent. Instead of reiterating the obvious, this piece will commend and stand in solidarity with the brave women who are acting to create a more equal world in the face of institutionalised oppression.
Much of the mainstream media are not reporting on the fact that Saudi Arabia are having some elections. More specifically, the ultraconservative nation is having nationwide municipal elections in which women, for the first time, are permitted to both vote and stand for office. On Saturday 2,100 council seats were up for election across the country, and about 130,000 women had registered to vote.
This is a positive step forward but there are reasons for this number being so low; ‘bureaucratic obstacles’ and lack of transport were cited as reasons for the disparity between male and female voters. These reasons illustrate the progress that is yet to be made as I will bet that ‘bureaucratic obstacles’ is a thinly veiled (pun intended) way of excluding women by conservative parts of the civil service. Also the lack of transport points out that, in the year 2015, women are still barred from driving in Saudi Arabia.
However the move to allow women to vote and stand in elections has had a wonderful, and unexpected, result. Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi won a seat in Mecca province, meaning that she will go down in history as the first women elected to public office in Saudi Arabia. Let’s not get carried away though. She is one women in one province and is unlikely to make much of substantial difference when it comes to the cause of women’s rights. Indeed out of all the elected offices a grand total of 14 women were elected. But, al-Oteibi can serve as a symbol is two ways.
The first is that a woman can be elected to public office, and this may encourage more women to stand for election and register to vote. The second, and I believe more important, is that she was elected at all. As I said only 130,000 women were registered to vote which means that women, when included with the 1.35 million men that were registered, only account for around 9% of the electorate. The reason that I believe this to be important is that the election of al-Oteibi is proof that there a large number of men who oppose the repression of women. It is now important for these men to stand in solidarity with the women of Saudi Arabia to demand equality.
The elections were not going to set the world on fire, especially given that around 1,000 seats will be appointed by the King. However what this, admittedly highly restricted, exercise in democracy proves is that brave women are standing up to be counted in one of the oppressive countries in the world. Because of the absolutism of the Saudi monarchy it is very possible that when a more conservative king comes to power that these reforms will be repealed, but in the mean time let’s celebrate the progress that this marks.