Women’s right to vote, something taken as a given in most countries, is making international news in Saudi Arabia as King Abdullah announced Saudi women will now have the right to vote.
Saudi Arabia is separating itself from other Muslim nations through the influence of Wahabiism, the most orthodox form of Islam. Though the nation is predominately Sunni, it is known by many for its “conservative values and generally oppressive view regarding women’s rights,” according to sophomore Emily Themer.
“We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society and in every aspect, within the rules of Sharia, (the Islam code of conduct),” Abdullah said in a public address.
Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Latin American Studies department Karen Kampirth said that King Abdullah´s decision to allow women to vote in local elections and run for offices is “a response to the long term efforts of very brave Saudi women to demand more rights, including the right to vote.”
This particular demand still will not be met until 2015, though promises have been made since the last municipal election in 2005 to allow women to participate. Immediately the only change is that they may now be elected to Majlis-Al Shura, which Kampwirth describes as a “fairly powerless body.”
Women will continue to live under what Human Rights Watch refers to as a “male guardianship system.” They must have the permission of father, husband or brother to exercise rights like study, travel and even their new right to vote.
Islamic club president junior Rana Tahir, originally from Kuwait, said she has visited Saudi Arabia.
“I couldn’t have been more surprised; I just went into complete culture shock. They’re geographically close but so far apart in ideals,” she said.
Tahir thinks that immediately, “there will be little effect. Overall, I’m a little skeptical about how this will play out.”
On the ground, little seems to be changing, though. Just days after Abdullah’s announcement, a court sentenced Shaimaa Ghassaneya to ten lashes for driving, a violation of religious law, according to an article by The New York Times.
This sentence is unusually harsh, as a woman would normally serve several days in detention; the decision was overturned by Abdullah, and Ghassaneya will not be serving this sentence, but at least two more women will stand trial for the same crime in coming months.
“I still think having the right to vote is important, even with all its limitations,” Kampwirth said. “Once women start voting and start getting elected, I think other issues are likely to find their way onto the political agenda.”
Women attaining rights is nothing new, Tahir said, “but what is remarkable is that it’s Saudi Arabia. You can’t use Saudi Arabia to compare, but you can use it to contrast and the fact that they’re making this step is remarkable.”
Note: Rana Tahir writes a weekly Discourse Section column for The Knox Student.