By Courtney Trenwith
The historic election of 17 women to municipal councils in Saudi Arabia is, unfortunately, a far from significant move towards equality, says Courtney Trenwith
More than 120 years after the first women (New Zealanders) were granted the right to vote, Saudi Arabia has finally opened a crack in the door of women’s rights in the kingdom.
The election of 17 women to municipal councils in the most conservative country in the world on December 12 should be a victory for all Saudis. It is notable that even Qassim, traditionally the most conservative part of the country, elected two women to its council, while Salma bint Hazab Al Otaibi won a seat in the Madrika district of Makkah, the holiest city of Islam.
However, it is far from time to let off the fireworks. The municipal councils that the women will join have no law making or national powers. Their impact on the nation’s discourse will be minimal.
Their ability to stand as candidates has been shrouded by caveats preventing them, for example, from campaigning to men. That saw dozens of women pull out of the race, according to local media reports, and stifled any chance of a fair campaign. That being said, it is remarkable that 17 women still managed to convince a sufficient number of locals to support them.
But before complaining that it is too little, too late, we must consider the kingdom’s record and recognise that while it has been slow and gradual, there has been significant progress in the past four years.
In 2011, the late King Abdullah announced women would be given 30 seats on the Shoura Council, the king’s advisory body. Hand-picked, they were appointed in January 2013.
Since then, several women have been given important roles on various Shoura Council committees, although in April the Council rejected a proposal to allow women to serve abroad as ambassadors. Council member Lubna Al Ansari had recommended women be appointed to key positions in the kingdom’s administrative, financial and technical fields as well as in diplomatic missions abroad but the foreign affairs committee refused. The idea of a woman representing the ultra-conservative kingdom in another country remains inconceivable.
But in a nation where women are still (infamously) unofficially banned from driving or controlling their own finances and must adhere to a strict dress code in public, a broader question arises. Which is more important: the right to vote or the right to greater freedom in their daily lives?
For many women, they would prefer the choice of what to wear, how and where to travel and whether they want to work. For them, gaining these basic rights is a higher priority than being allowed to vote in an election that at the end of the day will have minimal impact.
But it may be too early to chastise the kingdom for its still relatively insignificant gesture to women. The judgment will depend on where to from here – and how quickly further equality is administered.
As we move into 2016, yet another year in the 21st century passes by. It is to be hoped that Saudi Arabia moves its policies towards women in the same direction.