Saudi Arabia: men still in the driving seat

"Because we refuse to marginalise women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior clerics and others… to involve women in the Shura Council [the advisory body, appointed by the King] as members, starting from next term. Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote."

So said Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz yesterday.

Even have a right to vote, eh? Hmmm. It prompts the obvious question-cum-retort: will these newly-enfranchised Saudi women be able to drive to the polling booths to cast their vote? The king says they will be to "run for office", does he mean literally …?

But just how serious are the (male) Saudi authorities about ensuring that half of the kingdom's population are able to enjoy their full rights? Many people will be highly sceptical. There have been previous announcements from the Saudi authorities heralding "liberalisation" that have come to nothing. This new promise – a promise only – is for 2015, still four years off. Meanwhile, this week’s council elections in Saudi Arabia go ahead without women as usual …

Let’s take stock. It's worth reminding ourselves that, as things stand, women in Saudi Arabia are treated as second-class citizens. They face severe discrimination in both law and in practice – they need the permission of a male guardian before they can (1) travel, (2) take paid work, (3) enrol in higher education, or (4) marry. Not much autonomy there. Domestic violence against women is, meanwhile, believed to be rife across the country. (It's also worth pointing out, of course, that if you're a female domestic worker from a country like the Philippines or Indonesia in Saudi Arabia, then your already minimal rights shrink to next-to-nothing).

King Abdullah's announcement has a top-down flavour ("we have decided … to involve women"), but I wonder if this year's Women2Drive campaign from some brave suffragette-like Saudi women (Manal al-Sharif and others) has forced the habitually conservative clerical and political establishment onto the back foot a little? Or is it that the Saudi authorities are increasingly aware of how the “Arab Spring” is beginning to make their country look like an authoritarian backwater?

Let’s see. The "concession" to women's rights may turn out to be little more than tokenism, or not even that. Yesterday one wag on Twitter said: "Women in Saudi Arabia now have the right to vote … on the Daz doorstep challenge", and BBC News Online's use of a photograph of two Saudi women on sewing machines for this story didn't exactly scream "women's empowerment". (The Sun’s take, by the way, was “Girl vote in Saudi”…)

The Saudi authorities "refuse to marginalise women in society", says Abdullah. Refuse? Who's been demanding that they do? It could just be a stylistic flourish, but I wonder if this reality-defying claim is actually a subtle reference to engrained male values in the country? An acknowledgement that there are forces in the country who want no new rights for women. Not now, not ever.

Either way, while men are still very much in the driving seat in Saudi Arabia, this weekend's development might mean that women have edged closer to the controls. When do they actually get behind the wheel though …?

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