Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah told his Consultative (Shura) Council today that women would be able to participate in future municipal elections and that he'd consider appointing women to the Council itself, saying: "Muslim women in our Islamic history have demonstrated positions that expressed correct opinions."
The reaction on Twitter by many people who know Saudi Arabia far better than me amounted to "so what?" After all, the municipal councils are largely powerless, and the King's Shura Council has no real powers of its own.
But in the context of Saudi discourse this strikes me as a fairly big move.
The Kingdom created the Shura Council in 1993. The group has had a few women on it since, but that hasn't been the sort of thing that the government has been interested in drawing attention to.
The first Municipal Council elections were held in 2005 with women denied the vote. That was the first "election-like" event in the Kingdom since the 1960s. A second set of municipal elections were originally scheduled for 2009, but have been repeatedly delayed. They're scheduled to finally go forward this week though without women voting. All going to plan, the next elections would probably be in 2015.
This year, Saudi Arabia has witnessed scattered protests of women taking to the wheel and insisting on the right to drive – a prospect that has traditionally horrified the conservative Saudi religious establishment.
While the government has held firm on banning women from receiving driver's licenses, the country has been fairly restrained in its handling of the protests. Abdullah himself has been something of a champion for the greater participation of women in society and this is a small step in that direction. Earlier this year, Abdullah dedicated a $5 billion university for women. Higher education remains segregated, but that's another step.
Manal Al-Sharif, a Saudi woman who helped organize the driving protests earlier this year, appeared delighted with the King's speech on Twitter and happily noted that many in his audience applauded his comments. "This day will go down in history," she wrote.
What Abdullah said was, quite simply, that women are worthy of providing advice to him (however rarely heeded that advice might be), which attacks the heart of the arguments of many conservatives who see women as less rational, less intelligent than men.
While true democracy in Saudi Arabia would be the death of the monarchy, this is a symbolic opening of more space for women in the Kingdom.
Of course, it will be interesting to see how this dealt with in practice, in a country that still segregates single men from the "family" sections of restaurants, and where women still need the permission (and, in theory, the accompaniment) of a male relative to leave the country.The King didn't actually use the word "vote" in his speech and "allowing" is one thing, appointing a large number of women advisers is something else again.