On Sept. 25, King Abdulla of Saudi Arabia gave a five-minute speech granting women the right to vote, run in municipal elections and be appointed as full voting members of the Majilis Al-Shura. These rights have been denied to women in Saudi Arabia for too long, and the King’s announcement was met with surprised reactions all over the world. But as progressive as the decision appears, the King’s announcement is motivated by self-interest rather than a belief in woman’s liberation.
Abdullah has been trying to ease the tense environment developing in his country by taking charge of the pro-democracy movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya before the Arab Spring grabs hold of his people. For instance, in March, he responded to Saudi activists’ protests by barring their demonstrations and instead announcing his public spending budget of $130 billion. Abdullah also built the country’s first coeducational university and granted over 120,000 scholarships to students. Indeed, these actions have given Abdullah the title of reformer, a title that has proven useful in helping him to avoid a similar fate as his long time ally, former Egyptian President Mubarak.
Thus, the recent reform on women’s rights appear to be more self-serving than most. Yes, it is true that women do get greater freedom and opportunities. That is an undeniable fact. But within the large scope of oppression in Saudi Arabia, the right to vote seems long overdue. Women still are banned from driving. Their fathers or husbands have control over their freedom to travel, receive health care, attend school or even start a business. Many Saudi women like Eman Al Nafjan, a Saudi women’s rights blogger, remark that Abdullah’s announcement was happily received by everyone. They were more hopeful, however, of a decision that would affect their everyday lives. As a 32-year-old mother of three, Nafjan says it is ridiculous for the law to not trust women behind the wheel. Furthermore, laws protecting women from rape or domestic abuse are still primitive. It seems only natural that Abdullah lift bans on these more immediate laws first.
In fact, even this voting right will not be effective until the 2015 elections, and women will need the approval of a male family member to exercise that right.
As difficult as this goal may be to reach, Saudi women must be given greater freedom and opportunities. This will be a vital milestone for women’s rights not only in Saudi Arabia, but around the world.