Women vote in Saudi Arabia – a different kind of revolution?

By Jonathon Graham

Over the course of the Arab spring, Saudi Arabia has remained relatively unmoved by the turmoil that has engulfed North Africa and the Gulf region in recent months. Yet despite the lack of the extensive protests that have characterised the changing of the political guard in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and the current campaigns being waged in Yemen and Bahrain, the rigidly conservative Islamic kingdom has not been without its own unique stirrings of civil unrest.

In recent months, a small collective known as Women2Drive has taken to the internet to post videos of their members breaking the country’s female driving ban. This has also been accompanied by a rising number of Supreme Court cases concerning legal challenges brought by women against the kingdom’s strict guardianship laws, which prevent women from performing various daily tasks without the express permission of a male custodian.

Significantly, these small, yet meaningful, protests do not appear to have fallen on deaf ears. At the opening of the new term of the Shura Council last Sunday, King Abdullah announced that, for the first time, women will be allowed to vote and stand in municipal elections within the next four years, leaving the Vatican City as the only sovereign entity to explicitly prohibit women from voting.

As much as any supposed step forward brought about by the Arab spring, this reform will have a huge effect on Saudi society. Crucially, however, it appears destined to do so in the absence of western backed calls for democratic reform. Unlike the nominal democracies of Tunisia and Egypt, Saudi Arabia has instituted reform according to its own views and without outside help. As such, the reform should be celebrated as a break through moment for Saudi women and equality as a political concept.

Equality, as an ideal, matters primarily because no ruling institution can be deemed legitimate if it does not show equal concern and respect for all those under its jurisdiction. Any independently distinct group that is discriminated against, or excluded from a decision making process, because of an arbitrary characteristic cannot be said to be treated fairly.

Even in the absence of parliamentary or presidential elections, it is not hard to see how the current system in Saudi Arabia falls short of providing women with equal concern and respect when compared to men. If the Shura Council is open to election by the general public, then excluding women from this vote, no matter how little legislative power the council actually holds, is an overt denouncement of equality.

As a result, the decision to allow women the vote is momentous not simply because it offers them a certain modicum of democratic power, but because it grants them a fundamental privilege which was previously denied them on the basis of their gender alone. It is on these grounds that we should judge King Abdullah’s decision to allow women the vote. Equality is about treating people impartially and not about granting them a set of specific freedoms, or ruling in a certain manner.

One particular comment below the main BBC article detailing this story reflects this misconception perfectly. According to the author of the remark, it was no surprise that conservative Saudi Arabia was almost a century behind liberal Britain in offering women the opportunity to vote. Unfortunately, this type of approach is common amongst liberal commentators who wrongly associate the demands of equality with the requirements of liberal democracy.

In general it is assumed that liberal democracies provide the most fertile ground for equality to flourish. This is due in no small part to the fact that in granting every citizen, regardless of gender, race or religion, the right to elect the ruling class, it offers an obvious example of the way in which a government may treat its members with equal concern and respect. By contrast, in Saudi Arabia where the strict Sunni Islamic law of the monarchy is hereditary and absolute this link is much more opaque.

Nevertheless, as a conservative monarchy, Saudi Arabia is just as capable of treating its citizens with equal concern and respect as its more liberal counterparts, whether it offers the same overall basic package of freedoms or not. To assume differently is to subscribe to the imperialistic mantra that has soured relations between the east and west for centuries.

If equality is truly concerned with treating people as equitably as possible, then the nature of the treatment itself is of secondary concern. We may not believe in religion or monarchy as ruling institutions, yet this does not automatically mean that those who do are open to unfair treatment. If this reform is indeed a harbinger of things to come it should be heralded as a triumph for equality and not as a half measure.

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