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Sun 25 Sep 2011 05:03 PM

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Saudi king gives women the vote for the first time

New ruling says women can win seats on Shura Council, vote in municipal elections

Saudi king gives women the vote for the first time
Saudi Arabias King Abdullah said women would be offered seats in the Shura Council

Saudi Arabia granted women the right to vote for the first time in its modern history as part of changes King Abdullah said will let them run in future municipal elections.

“We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society in every field of work,” Abdullah said Sunday on state television as he inaugurated a new session of the council. “Women have the right to submit their candidacy for municipal council membership and have the right to take part in submitting candidates in accordance with Shariah.”

Saudi Arabia enforces gender restrictions interpreted from the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Men and women are strictly segregated in public, including at schools, restaurants and lines at fast-food takeouts. That keeps women out of sales jobs in malls and stores, unless the outlet caters exclusively to a female clientele.

The king also said yesterday women can now be part of an advisory council to him. Abdullah, who was born in 1924, has promised to improve the status of women and opened the first co- educational university in 2009. He appointed the kingdom’s first female deputy minister, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, the same year and has said he will provide women more access to jobs. Women are still not allowed to drive.

“We hope that with Saudi women going to the municipal council, they will be able to drive in the future,” Ibrahim al- Mugaiteeb, president of the Human Rights First Society, said in a phone interview from al-Khobar yesterday. “It is a huge step forward.”

The Riyadh-based council, a 150-member assembly, is appointed by the king to advise on legislation. The assembly consists of 12 committees, covering topics such as human rights, foreign affairs and energy. The council, whose current speaker is Abdullah Al al-Sheikh, is permitted to propose draft laws and present them to the king.

Abdullah said the decision was taken “after consultations with many of our scholars, especially those in the senior scholars council, and others,” who supported this move.

“The whole issue was about enfranchising women into the political process,” Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Riyadh-based democracy activist, said by phone yesterday. “For women, obviously, it is a good step.”

Saudi Arabia will hold municipal elections on Sept 29 without the participation of women. The next vote is in 2015. About 1.2 million all-male voters have registered to elect 816 municipal council members in the kingdom’s second municipal elections.

The Shoura Council agreed in June that the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs should complete procedures that will let women vote in municipal elections “in line with Islamic law,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported. In 2005, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said women may be allowed to vote in future municipal elections.

This is the second decision the king has taken since June that addresses longstanding demands made by women. That month, the king also issued a royal decree requiring that only women work in “shops selling women’s necessities.” The move triggered a Labour Ministry order to lingerie shops and make-up stores to switch their male staff with women.

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“The decision to allow women to participate in elections and vote in the Shoura Council is the first step forward in allowing half of Saudi society to have a chance to contribute to development in the kingdom,” Olfat Kabbani, vice chairman of the industrial committee at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said in an e-mailed statement.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague called the proposals a “significant step forward for the people of Saudi Arabia,” the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in an e-mailed statement.

The UK “strongly supports moves to increase the political and economic participation of women across the Arab world” and looks forward to “examining the full details of the proposed changes and how they will work in practice,” Hague said, according to the statement.

Women in Saudi Arabia got behind the wheels of their cars in June to challenge the world’s only ban on driving by females. The plan to get women with international driving licenses out in their cars followed a campaign that led to the detention of one of the activists, Manal al-Sharif.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, is an absolute monarchy and has been ruled by six kings since it was established in 1932.

This was the second televised speech Abdullah gave to the nation this year. In March, Abdullah ordered sweeping increases in spending, including $67bn on housing and funds for the military and religious groups that backed the government’s ban on domestic protests.

That speech came as the Middle East witnessed unprecedented unrest as popular movements toppled leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Violent clashes persist in Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, Yemen and Bahrain. The world’s largest oil supplier didn’t experience political unrest, though there were limited protests held by the Shiite minority in the kingdom’s Eastern Province.

Saudi Arabia celebrated its National Day on Sept. 23. King Abdullah initiated the holiday in 2005 when he came to power. Traffic stopped in Riyadh as young men danced on the streets, blasted music from their cars and waved national flags as religious police watched on without intervening.

“We are determined to spend on large-scale projects on the economic level to make sure that the kingdom is away from any impact of the slowing global economy,” the Saudi Press Agency reported yesterday, citing a written copy of Abdullah’s speech.

Asif 8 years ago

I am still unclear as to why women can't drive in Saudi, when will women be given this right in the country?

Christine B.Osborne 8 years ago

King Abdullah has no doubt overruled some hardliners in getting Saudi women enfranchised but why wait four years? And if a woman alone at home wishes to vote, yet she may not drive, how will she manage if her husband won't take her to the polling booth?

We Are The People 8 years ago

Correction, driving in any country worldwide is a PRIVELLAGE never a right. If it is your right to drive then, no one can take that away from you. However, your driving privileges can be suspended based on your traffic violation that you commit. You have the right to vote, no one can take that away from you regardless however, you can be denied a driver license even in your own home country.

abdul hafeez sheikh 8 years ago

His Highness King Abdullah has done great service to the women of KSA and also done great service to Islam. I hope with the passage of time and development of certain legal framwork, the women of KSA will get their right to drive.

Telcoguy 8 years ago

@we are the people, I do not know where you are from but voting "rights" can be taken from you in, for example, the USA (in fact some people point to this as a tool to disenfranchise blacks).
You would probably be better arguing that "rights" belong to groups of citizens (and you have that right just for belonging to that group) while privileges are linked to individual action (passing the test drive), more semantics than hard law.
In any case this is a moot point as the distinction between "rights" and "privileges" will depend on the legal status on each country.
So, going back to your point, while I agree that driving is a privilege, what one would expect though is that both rights and privileges would not depend, as much as possible, on one's gender or age or family name... In KSA I would argue that only men have the "right" to earn the privilege of driving and women do not have that right, so women are deprived of that right. But that of course is my western imperialist mindset.

Envoy 8 years ago

Right to Drive should be next. Thank God for Arab Spring. Leaders are waking up. The world will never be the same again.

Adil 8 years ago

Not fours years, he was fighting for this even before 1995 when he became de facto ruler of the Kingdom. It takes a long time to eradicate a thousand year believe. But hey he did it. I love this man.

Asif 8 years ago

@We are the people,

The right of a citizen to travel upon the public highways and to transport his/her property thereon by automobile is not a mere privilege which a city or government can prohibit or permit at will, but a common right which he or she has under the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Fletch 8 years ago

“We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society,” Abdullah said.

So why not let them drive? Why have this gender apartheid in restaurants? Why force them to travel with a guardian?