Women's voting rights in Saudi Arabia: a blow to medieval brands of Islam

The Saudi king's decree allowing women to vote in local elections shows the influence of the Arab Spring – and decline of a radical, repressive version of Islam.

The status of women in Saudi Arabia has long been a bellwether of the power of Islamic fundamentalists worldwide. More freedom for Saudi women would mean less intolerance for certain brands of the Muslim faith.

Well, chalk one up for a tolerant Islam, the kind that respects universal values such as gender equality.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy announced that women would be allowed to vote in the kingdom’s very limited democracy – municipal elections – as well as run for local offices. And they could also become members of a body that advises the king.

The timing of this royal decree is telling.

It comes nine months after the start of the Arab Spring, which has so far toppled three dictators; six months after the killing of Osama bin Laden, whose goal was to control Islam’s holy sites in Saudi Arabia; and three months after an embarrassing protest in which dozens of Saudi women defied the fatwas of conservative clerics by driving cars.

King Abdullah’s edict granting limited political rights for women shows that ideas such as universal suffrage may yet win out against Saudi Arabia’s state-sponsored creed, known as Wahhabi Islam.

That 18th-century interpretation of Sunni Islam is based on a harsh, literalist version of the Quran. It sees control of women and the segregation of the sexes as essential to creating a pure Muslim society.

Its conservative clerics preach blind allegiance to authority and use their clout with the faithful to control the ruling Saud family. And they have pushed the regime to spend billions in promoting Wahhabism around the world.

The king, however, has shown a reformist streak toward women, especially in the economy. He took businesswomen on a trade trip to China and appointed a female deputy minister of education. He founded a university that educates women, even allowing them to not cover their faces on campus.

While his latest moves may give women more voice, they will be limited in a country still ruled with a heavy hand and that is out of step with many Muslim countries in which women enjoy basic rights.

Only half of the seats on the 178 municipal councils are elected, and it’s not clear how Saudi women will be able to campaign if they can’t even drive. Any grass-roots pushback by the clerics may prevent women from voting in practice. And the king’s advisory body, known as Shura Council, is not elected; any women on it may be forced to sit in separate rooms.

The king could be granting these limited rights in order to prevent the kind of protests and revolutions seen in neighboring Arab states. Saudi Arabia has become the leader in preventing revolutions in fellow Arab monarchies, such as Bahrain.

Still, the edict shows the power of Saudi women to win reform, especially with help from social media like Facebook that can spread ideas and actions. The arena for greater debate on rights can now grow.

The struggle to redefine Islam is being played out on many fronts – in Iran, postrevolutionary Egypt, and among female Muslim scholars reinterpreting the Quran. But in the Muslim heartland on the Saudi Peninsula, the powerful conservative sect that preaches repression and hate is slowly losing out.

And the best litmus test of that struggle is Saudi women demanding – and winning – more freedom.

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