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Right to vote isn’t enough

September 30, 2011

THERE’S good news and bad news for advocates of women’s rights in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia has announced that women in the country would for the first time be able to vote and stand in municipal elections in 2015. The bad news is that they would probably have to walk to the polling stations.

Only hours after a motley crew of Saudi princesses and western governments applauded King Abdullah’s “revolutionary and historic” decision, a Saudi court sentenced a woman to 10 lashes for challenging a ban on women driving in the kingdom.

True, the punishment has been overturned by the king. But the entire episode does not say much for the status of women in Saudi Arabia or the king’s chances of ensuring even snail-paced reform. One step forward, two steps back? Not really. As far as I can tell, it’s little more than status quo as the world’s richest, most influential and arguably most powerful Arab state continues to treat half its citizens as irresponsible children.

What a pity. Imagine how different the world would be if instead of fighting against modernity and equality, the Saudi monarchy used its riches and influence to promote equal opportunities, freedom and democracy. Picture a Muslim world where a country as powerful as Saudi Arabia encouraged change and transition instead of clinging to out-of-date and out-of-touch values. For the moment, however, those looking for inspiration in reconciling Islam and modernity and Islam and democracy have to learn lessons from Turkey or Indonesia.

Many Muslim countries squirm in the Saudi grip but most people are reluctant to denounce the encroaching puritan influence on their lifestyles. It is women who bear the brunt. Life for women in many parts of the Muslim world is not easy. There is discrimination at home and in the workplace, multiple constraints and traditions to follow, rules and values that have to be respected, men who have to be ‘obeyed’.

The contagion is spreading to Muslim communities in Europe where France and Belgium have recently enacted legislation banning women from wearing the burka. But in Saudi Arabia women are not only veiled and segregated; they cannot work, own property or even open a bank account without their father’s or husband’s permission.

Women are also denied the right to drive. Saudi women are dependent on men to take them to university, work and shopping.

Although there are no written laws that restrict women from driving, the prohibition is rooted in conservative traditions and religious views that hold that giving freedom of movement to women would make them vulnerable to sin. Police usually stop female drivers, question them and let them go after they sign a pledge not to drive again. But dozens of women have continued to take to the roads since June in a campaign to break the taboo.

I have to confess that come summer, one of the most disturbing sights in London, Geneva or Paris is of an Arab man — often from one of the Gulf monarchies — clad in a trendy T-shirt and shorts striding ahead as his wife struggles to keep up, clearly hot and bothered, in a full black burka. Perhaps the Saudi and other Gulf women like it that way. But somehow I don’t think so.

Most of the Arab women I meet want to be part of the real world, not go through life as barely visible phantoms.

That’s why women were and are key actors in the demand for change and reform that continues to convulse the Arab world.

And that’s why women are determined to ensure that they have a voice and a role to play in a post-revolution Middle East.

It’s happened before: women take part in a revolution but are instructed to stay home and stay quiet once the upheaval is over. My Tunisian and Egyptian friends are determined to ensure that this does not happen this time around. Knowing how brave most of them are, I am sure they will succeed.

Even as the rest of the Arab world struggles with the demands for democracy and change, Saudi Arabia has remained an exception. King Abdullah certainly deserves credit for his decision to give women the right to vote, to run in municipal elections and to be appointed as full voting members of the Majlis Al-Shura, a government advisory group. It is a first step towards moving his country into the modern world but frankly let’s not fool ourselves: it is not nearly enough.

As the Financial Times noted, the promise has been made before and “in the meantime, the rules that make women the wards of male relatives in even the tiniest legal matter — and the no less offensive ban on driving — remain in place, threading women’s lives through endless humiliations and impracticalities”.

Even after the king’s announcement, women will need the approval of a male family member to exercise the right to stand and vote in the 2015 municipal elections. They also will not be appointed to the 150-member Shura Council, the country’s top advisory board, until its current term ends in 2013. The fact that Saudi Arabia felt the need to make concessions on women’s rights is an indication that there is concern in the kingdom about the turmoil in the rest of the region.

But as Philip of Amnesty International told reporters: “Allowing women to vote in council elections is all well and good, but if they are still going to face being flogged for trying to exercise their right to freedom of movement, then the king’s much-trumpeted ‘reforms’ actually amount to very little.”

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.