Even if the latest promise of granting marginal political rights to Saudi women could be believed, it would be too little, too late. King Abdullah has good intentions regarding their position, but any step forward on rights tends to be matched by two steps back — and not just for women.
The king consulted with clerics before announcing women could vote in the next municipal election — though not the one due this week — and join the royally-appointed Majlis ash-Shura, a consultative body with no real power. The clerics’ consent suggests they see the promise as sufficiently meaningless not to pose any threat to the Wahhabi establishment.
They are right. This promise has been made before — when municipal elections were first held in 2005, women were also told that next time they would be allowed to cast their ballots. Not only did it take six years for “next time” to arrive; women have now been sold that particular horse twice. No one knows how long it will take before the new promise is tested. 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.
Saudi policy is racked by rivalries within the House of Saud and the inherent uncertainties of gerontocracy. But the rulers seem united in defying the march of history by holding on to their form of government: absolute monarchy balanced only by fundamentalist theocracy. In particular, they show no sign of permitting any political participation that would permit minority Shia to press their claims. Not only women, but all disenfranchised Saudis will have to bide their time a while longer.
London Evening Standard (Sept. 28)