Let Saudi Women Vote

Three brave Saudis broke with history recently when they became the first women to announce plans to run in local elections in the gender-segregated kingdom - considered Islam's birthplace.

For the first time in 40 years, Saudi Arabia will conduct municipal elections, a sign that its authoritarian monarchy is testing the waters of political reform.

Sadly, the royal rulers didn't wade in deep enough. This week, the three women - an architect, a worker in special education, and a department head in the Jeddah chamber of commerce - learned that neither they nor any other women will be able to run in next year's elections, or vote.

Maybe women will eventually be able to vote if "studies" prove that's "useful," says Prince Mansur bin Muteb bin Abdul Aziz, the head of the election committee.

Saudis talk a lot about reforming at their own pace, and in their own way. They don't want to simply adopt the Western democratic template, and they don't want to be rushed. The fact that only half of the seats in the country's 178 municipal councils will be open to elected representatives clearly shows this tentativeness.

That hesitancy is understandable when one considers that the path to reform, if followed to its conclusion, could mean the end of royal rule and, in the case of women, the overturning of Saudi society and culture.

Today, a Saudi woman may not work, study, or travel without permission from her husband or a male guardian. She may not drive, period, nor work alongside males. In public, she must be covered in a black cloak.

Acknowledging that Saudis are moving at their own speed, US Secretary of State Colin Powell responded to this week's election restrictions by saying that Saudi women should be allowed to vote, but "these things have to come in due course."

The Saudis' "maybe someday" approach to women's suffrage suffers from a basic flaw: As Saudi Arabia moves toward reform, only one gender gets to define what the new and improved Saudi Arabia will look like. With no place at the starting gate, women have no ability to shape the pace or scope of reform - even a conservative reform.

Privately, an election official says there are not enough women to staff separate polling and registration stations; neither do very many Saudi women have the photo IDs required for voting. Nadia Bakhurji, the architect candidate, insists that women can work with election officials to "solve these problems in time for elections."

One need only look to the eager Afghan women lined up in last weekend's polling to know she's right.

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