World headlines blared on Monday that women in Saudi Arabia had been granted the right to vote. This is exactly what the kingdom’s hard-line Muslim rulers wanted. It diverts attention from the fact that women will still be banned from voting in this week’s elections.
On Sunday, Saudi King Abdullah decreed that women would be able to participate and run in local elections in 2015. They also would be allowed to participate in the advisory Shura Council, whose 150 members are appointed by the king. The decree, however, is mostly important for what it does not say, which is that women are still banned from voting in the elections scheduled for Thursday. This election was originally scheduled for 2009 but purportedly was delayed for two years so the government could review the question of women’s suffrage. The decision to continue the ban on women voting in the current election cycle came down from the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs in March, making the king’s announcement nothing more than a public-relations ploy.
The royal fiat doesn’t actually mention voting. It says, “Women are entitled to nominate themselves for membership in municipal councils, and they are also entitled to participate in the nomination of candidates, according to the parameters of the true law.” It states women would be able to participate “in the Shura Council as members in the next round, according to legal parameters.” Caveats about legal parameters refer to enabling rules to come later from Saudi ministries, which aren’t guaranteed to cooperate with alacrity. The next election could be delayed like the current one, or the decree could be annulled at the king’s whim at any time.
Voting in the kingdom is hardly empowering for anyone. Elections are only held at the local level in the 178 Saudi municipalities while national policy is tightly controlled by the palace. There is no concept of individual rights or freedom of expression as Westerners understand them, and individuals are subordinated to the strictures of Shariah law.
In Jeddah on Sunday, female activist Najalaa Harrir was questioned by authorities for the crime of driving after being videotaped behind the wheel of a car. Driving restrictions have become a symbol of the countless indignities and discriminatory laws to keep Saudi women down. Despite a few democratic trappings, Saudi Arabia is still a hard-line Islamic autocracy where women have to bow, fully covered, to “the will of Allah” - and Abdullah.