Women's rights open debate into Saudi national character

Extension of the vote to Saudi women is a fine step, but a thick web of conservative social practice will limit the effects of the change.

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King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz's surprise announcement on Sunday of his intention to give women similar political opportunities as men is his boldest step so far to advance Saudi women's rights.

But whether it will be a truly historic move will depend on how the initiatives he outlined will be implemented in practice. And that's where the rub will be because the kingdom's guardianship system severely limits women's personal autonomy, forcing them to have a male relative's formal permission for almost everything they do outside the home.

Implementation on the ground will also run up against the kingdom's strict gender segregation, which is supported by many Saudis as well as the ultraconservative religious establishment. Already some conservatives are proposing that female members of the Majlis Al Shura participate by closed circuit television so they would be heard, but not seen, by male members.

And how, wonder other Saudis, are women candidates to run their campaigns for election to municipal councils if they can't speak to a room full of male voters or drive themselves to a rally?

Despite these potential pitfalls, many Saudis were right to rejoice at the news because, after months of apparent stalling in his reformist agenda, the king reaffirmed that he will continue to nudge his nation into the 21st century, however slowly.

"Balanced modernisation in line with our Islamic values, which preserve rights, is an important requirement in an era with no room for the weak and undecided people," the king noted in his short address on Sunday before the Majlis Al Shura.

"I haven't been able to take my breath," said Hatoon Al Fassi, a university professor who was an organiser of a campaign earlier this year demanding the right to vote for women. "We're so excited. We believe it's the response to our demands, the first step in our long struggle to get our rights."

To be sure, the new opportunities the king is offering women will be just as limited as they are for men: the Majlis Al Shura is an unelected body with a purely advisory role. And the vote only applies to half the members of the country's 280-plus municipal councils, which most Saudis regard as ineffectual chambers.

In other words, political power will still totally reside in the king and other members of the ruling family.

And implementation will not be immediate. Women are to be appointed to the 150-member Majlis only at the beginning of its next term in 18 months, and will begin participating in municipal elections in the next poll scheduled in four years' time.

These delayed starts of women's involvement are likely to be periods of strong debate over just how women will participate. They may also give some women pause about the importance of what the king promised them on Sunday.

"Women will reach the conclusion very soon that it's a limited step," said sociologist Khalid Al Dakhil, noting that a significant segment of Saudi society has been asking that the entire Majlis become an elected body with real powers "for 10 to 12 years".

One of the most interesting aspects of the king's nod for female involvement in politics is that it is his latest initiative in challenging the kingdom's dominant interpretation of Islam, a puritanical version that has retarded the country's modernisation for decades.

This was evident in his comments that implicitly criticised those who seek to keep women out of public life. "All people know that Muslim women have had in the Islamic history, positions that cannot be marginalised, including [giving] correct opinions and advice since the era of Prophet Mohammed," King Abdullah said.

The decisions he announced Sunday, he added, were reached "after consultations with many of our [religious] scholars" and were based on the fact that "we reject to marginalise the role of women in the Saudi society".

Previous moves by King Abdullah to shift the kingdom's dominant version of Islam, which is leery of contact with non-Muslims, included his 2008 global interfaith dialogue overture, his 2007 meeting with Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI, and a 2003 series of "national dialogues" that included clerics from several strains of Islam.

"He's a brave king to say clearly that we are doing this in accordance with Islam as it was in the time of Prophet Muhammad," said Mohammed Al Zulfa, a former member of the Majlis Al Shura and long-time champion of greater freedoms for Saudi women. "He's doing this in accordance with real Islam, as we know it, and real Islam is getting women's rights and being full members of society."

Now, many women are hoping that the king will soon take an even bolder step, one that would have a more direct and immediate effect on their daily lives, by declaring that women may obtain drivers' licences.

"If he had said women can drive, now that would be something," said Eman Al Nafjan, an English teacher and blogger in Riyadh. "That would be a huge change."

Caryle Murphy is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. From 2008-2011, she was The National's correspondent in Riyadh