When I saw headlines proclaiming the great Saudi “reform” — allowing women the right to vote — I had to laugh. Or cry. If you live in an Islamic, authoritarian state with an atrocious record on human rights, is voting really all that meaningful?
Saudi Arabia, as our own State Department explains: “is a monarchy ruled by the Al Saud family. . . . The government bases its legitimacy on its interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) and the 1992 Basic Law. The Basic Law sets out the system of governance, rights of citizens, and powers and duties of the government. The law also provides that the Qur’an and the Traditions (Sunna) of the Prophet Muhammad serve as the country’s constitution. . . . Citizens did not have the right to change their government peacefully.” They also don’t have the right of free speech, assembly, or any other political rights we associate with a free country.
Irfan-al-Alawi and Stephen Schwartz, writing in the Weekly Standard, acknowledge that giving women the right to vote in municipal elections and to be appointed to an executive consulative body is noteworthy. But it might be tricky to get to the polls since “women, who own at least 80,000 motor vehicles in Saudi Arabia, are still barred from driving them.”
Moreover, “Saudi women are also still oppressed by so-called ‘guardianship’ rules under which they may not travel, open a bank account, or visit a doctor without being accompanied by a male relative. ’Guardianship’ is further used to bar women from professions in which they might deal with men to whom they are not related, although such obstacles to ordinary commerce have long been excluded from traditional Islamic law. Other abuses continue, including treatment of rape as a crime caused by women who mix with men from outside their families, to whom they are not married, or without a chaperone, as well as so-called ‘honor’ murders, forced marriages, forced divorces between ‘inappropriate’ tribes, clans, and families, female genital mutilation, and restriction of women’s rights in court proceedings.”
The authors write, “In this context, the grant of women’s future nomination to the municipal councils remains insufficient but significant. Saudis are deprived of complete gender equality, but also lack an elected national legislature, an independent judiciary, a necessary reform of the educational curriculum, a fully accountable police force, and, as is best known, freedom of religious conscience. Saudi Arabia remains the only Muslim country in the world where Islam is the only faith that may be practiced in public.”
So you’ll pardon me if the voting “reform” in an Islamic authoritarian state — in which 6-year old girls are married off to old men, old ladies are given the lash and a “death-row inmate sells his 15-year-old daughter in marriage to a fellow prisoner to pay off some debts” — doesn’t induce me to break out in a chorus of “I am woman.” In order for women to have political rights, they have to be recognized as fully human, as equal in God’s eyes as their husband and sons. And that, in Saudi Arabia, is a long, long way off.