<a href="http://www.mepc.org/articles-commentary/middle-east-focus">Middle East In Focus</a>
Ten years after Saudi women were allowed to vote in municipal elections, the decision has been made that they can now be eligible to seek office in those elections. While roundly supported by observers within the country, the move has been considered by some as not going nearly far enough. That the ruling will likely have little short-term impact in the representation of women of municipal councils may well be, but that is not where the importance of the decision lies. Instead, proponents of the policy change point out to the potentially medium- to long-term benefits of a greater political and social space for women participation, similar to what is happening in neighboring UAE.
Writing for the main Saudi daily, Arab News, Zuhair Al-Harthi notes that the move provides more evidence that the Saudi society is taking the rights steps on women’s rights: “Saudi Arabia has time and again proved that change comes from within. Perhaps the importance of the decision was retuning the society to its natural balance. Such partnership between men and women in the development process is not a luxury but a necessity. This decision will have far-reaching cultural and social impact on our country. Forces against Saudi Arabia and other anti-Saudi elements who don’t wish to see the Kingdom on the road to success, did not waste time and started criticizing and underestimating this important step....If given an environment conducive to growth, our women could excel and compete at any level. It’s time to change the stereotypical views about women. Women are an important part of society and a key element in development.”
It is not clear which anti-Saudi elements the previous author was referring to, but at least one Western observer — The Christian Science Monitor’s Taylor Luck, whose article was republished by The Khaleej Times — has tried to downplay the importance of the decision: “For the first time in its history, Saudi Arabia is allowing women to vote and run for office, a dramatic step forward in the male-dominated conservative society. But few Saudi women have registered to vote in the upcoming municipal polls. Women and human rights activists point to persistent disadvantages - such as a frequent lack of personal documents and the ban on women driving — that block women from autonomous civic participation. And many don't know where they need to go to get on the voting rolls....On the first day of registration in the city of Madina on August 18, a total of five women registered, local media reported. Leading Saudi women pointed to a lack of public awareness as one reason. Public-funded advertisements and awareness campaigns began earlier this month, a few weeks before registration opened. And voter registration centers are being held in girls' schools that are often far from voters' home districts, creating confusion.”
The backlash against such nay saying has been swift, with many taking to the pages of Arab News to defend both the incremental and historic nature of the decision. For example, in a recent editorial, the Arab News staff betrayed a sense of frustration, wondering “Why is it that the international media seeks to make a damning negative out of the role of women in the Kingdom? The harsh truth is that, to speak frankly, international commentators are too lazy and too ignorant to even try to understand a conservative society that embraces high technology while still treasuring strong traditional values. It is a sad reality of much of the world’s media that they choose to depict Saudi Arabia as somehow ‘backward’ in its approach to women....Those who insist that the Kingdom is introvert and deeply conservative are entirely wrong. Women already play an important role in the Kingdom’s Shoura Council, where their invaluable contribution has been recognized....If past coverage is any guide, much of the reporting will be ill-informed. But wiser pundits will see the whole process for what it really is. They will appreciate that the election is a quiet evolution in a country where women are accorded the same respect as men.”
Similarly, Abdulrahman al-Rashed makes the argument that the policy change is consequential not simply because more women may be elected to municipal councils, but because it introduces new norms and expectations in the Saudi society about the role of women, broadly speaking: “The move to allow women to participate in the polls has been controversial in the Kingdom. Those who believe in its importance have even thought that it was far-fetched, until Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman showed his support....However, the importance of this move is that women have now crossed the starting line in their empowerment, which would eventually lead them to have an active role in a community of which they make up half. This is why news about their weak participation in the elections must not distort the perception of this real and historic development....the success of women’s integration and participation should not be measured by how many participate at this stage. Rather, it should be distinguished by their rights and then after a decade or two, we would be able to see the difference.”
A similar argument is made by Sabria Jawhar, for whom “The right for Saudi women to vote in local elections is not about effecting change in our country, or even furthering the cause of democracy, as critics of the Kingdom so desperately want for us. We are not so naïve as to believe that the makeup of municipal councils will change anytime soon....And it’s not about women helping in the implementation of democracy in Saudi Arabia. We already have that with the 150-member Shoura Council, which also has about 30 female members....It’s unlikely that my voice as a voter will have much of an impact, but it sets the stage for the next generation of Saudi women who will have an effect on the future of the country.”
Moreover, Rasheed Abou-Alsamh sees a much needed economic dividend for women as a result of the proposed changes, noting that the decision can open the way to more women in the workforce and especially in leadership positions: “For sure the women candidates for the municipal councils will bring new concerns to the forefront of public debate, which is long overdue. Hopefully they will talk about the many Saudi women that work for slave wages, as Al-Sharq daily recently reported about the ones working in the canteens of public schools making only SR300 a month each!...The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) has long had many women members active within its ranks, helping Saudi women to become entrepreneurs and offering business ideas and support for women wishing to run their businesses from home. They have proven themselves to be excellent organizers and hopefully their participation in the municipal elections will give them another avenue to make their mark in civic and governmental affairs.”
The Saudi announcement comes in the middle of a similar conversation taking place within the UAE, which, according to some regional observers has become a role model for women’s empowerment in the Gulf region. The Gulf Today editorial, for example, was very complementary of UAE’s track record, pointing out that “In the earlier days, women around the world took up only selective roles like teachers or nurses, but now they have come a long way, especially in the UAE. Emirati women have proven their efficiency in any role assigned in the service of the nation, including the armed forces, national service, police and security. Women hold around 30 per cent of the senior jobs related to the decision-making process, 10 per cent of the jobs in the diplomatic corps, 7 seats on the Federal National Council, with one holding the post of Senior Deputy FNC Speaker. Talk of business and entrepreneurship, top editors in print and other media, diplomatic corps, pilots, space research, satellites, aviation, medicine… the list of sectors where Emirati women shine grows on....All this goes to prove that the UAE has become a model for women’s empowerment for many other countries in the region and the world.”
Still, as a study by Lamya N. Fawwaz points out, much remains to be done in the UAE, especially with regards to women’s participation in corporate boards: “With the UAE’s track record of being progressive and forward-thinking, the country is ready for the next phase of its social and economic progress. In the past decade alone it has witnessed significant and unparalleled transformations in many of its sectors....Today, Emirati women account for nearly 60% of all UAE National university graduates, of which women account for 62% of public university graduates and 43% of private university graduates. Emirati women also make up 43% of the total UAE National workforce, with the proportion rising to 66% in the government sector.But these high percentages do not carry forward into board membership and senior levels of business....Mandatory female quotas for corporate boards is one effective and tested way to go....it would be a move that both supports the country’s goals of female empowerment and its vision of becoming an innovative, progressive and prosperous knowledge-economy, while serving to inspire a new generation of girls to pursue challenging and valuable professions to support the continuing advancement of the UAE.”
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