When we think of Saudi Arabia, the image that comes to mind is an oppressive monarchy, with almost negligible rights for women. While that isn’t far from true, an announcement made a few days back by King Salman might be the first step towards a more liberal system. Although it was promised by King Abdullah in 2011, women in Saudi Arabia now have the right to vote, starting from the municipal elections in December this year.

Saudi Arabia is a strict monarchy with Shura, and advisory council to the King and a municipal council. For the decades, heirs of the House of Saud have descended to the throne. The country is dominated by Sunni right, and it has resulted in a very strict social structure. The society is male-dominated with an adherence to gender roles and socialization. The Sunni law allows for Mahram, a system of male guardianship, where a woman needs to have her male guardian’s permission to do almost anything – ranging from the right to file a suit, travel abroad and even receiving medical attention, and the infamous lack of right to drive.

King Abdullah, in 2011, had promised women the right to vote, but it didn’t become a reality till the recent announcement by King Salman that women shall be allowed to vote and contest elections for the municipal council. This announcement comes after deliberations with senior clerics on the issue, and making sure that women aren’t marginalized in the society they are a part of. It is worth noting that King Abdullah invited women to be a part of the Shura Council, whose members are selected, and 30 women became a part of it, while women were unsuccessful in registering themselves as voters in 2011. This move was also preceded by a female deputy minister, and the first female trainee lawyer. The country, however, has no women in a judicial office. The municipal council is involved in making the budget, planning and passing development projects. The candidates will not be able to use their photographs in the campaign and there will be separate polling booths. A campaign named Paladi (my country) is instrumental in trying to train women for campaigning and help women chalk out their agendas and plans. Trainers are expected to join from other Arab countries and the UN.

The response to this announcement has been mostly positive, with commentators welcoming it as the first step towards women’s inclusion in the legislative process and that it reflects a broader change in how the society now views women. Now the conservative voice might not be the only one that is represented. However, there is still some cynicism around with experts raising questions that in a gender-segregated society like Saudi Arabia, how would the council operate and what the legislative debates would be like. They argue that when female mobility is so restricted, getting to the polling booths might be a struggle in itself. Although the law allows for and permits women to get IDs without needing permission from the guardian, which is needed to vote, but a lot of women might not have access to it since the IDs include photographs and some conservatives households might not be in the favor of it. On the other hand, some argue that where the council acts in a mere consultative capacity to the King and political dissent is illegal, right to vote might just be meaningless. Apart from that, the political ideology of the family is likely to influence the way women vote, and only women from more affluent families might be able to contest the the elections, where again they might be placeholders for the men in the family. However, none of these are central to a country governed by religious laws. There has also been a strong opposition from the more fundamentalist right wing claiming women’s participation might be detrimental to the social order. A fear of backlash from this community might be a reason why the King may not be rushing into grant women more rights.

70 women have expressed their will to run in the elections, and another 80 have registered as campaign managers. We need to understand that women in Saudi Arabia don’t have as many rights as their foreign counterparts, and even the males in their own country, but their inclusion in the legislative process paves the way for a more wholesome development of law and the society, with a hope that female participation will lead to an increase in women’s rights and laws related to freedom. While all of this is mere speculation, a right cannot stand on its own, without any surrounding rights. One can only hope that this development is followed by scraping of the guardianship laws in place so women can realize their rights without being subject anyone else’s wishes.

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