What has been a basic right of women throughout the United States since 1920 will become a step toward equality for women in Saudi Arabia by 2015. That’s when King Abdullah’s recent decision to allow women the right to vote and to run in local elections will take effect.
The king first discussed the plan with his nation’s top religious leaders, and then announced his decision at an annual speech before the Shura Council, his advisory assembly. He explained that he took the decisive action because a large and vocal sector of Saudi society was demanding greater social freedoms.
"Balanced modernization, which falls within our Islamic values, is an important demand in an era where there is no place for defeatist or hesitant people. Muslim women in our Islamic history have demonstrated positions that expressed correct opinions and advice," said the king.
He also announced that women will be appointed to the Shura Council. That addition will be important for women, since the Council is currently made up of men only.
The U.S. noted that these actions will soon allow Saudi women to be a larger part of the decisions in their communities that affect life on a daily basis.
More Rights Needed
Though the decisions are a significant step forward for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, many people there feel the action will not happen soon enough, especially since local elections are scheduled for this Thursday.
"Why not tomorrow?" asked Wajeha al-Hawaidar. She is a leader in the fight for the rights of Saudi women. "I think the king doesn't want to shake the country, but we look around us and we think it is a shame . . . when we are still pondering how to meet simple women's rights."
In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive. To travel out of the country, a woman must have the permission of her husband or male guardian.
"We didn't ask for politics, we asked for our basic rights. We demanded that we be treated as equal citizens and lift the male guardianship over us," said Maha al-Qahtani. "We have many problems that need to be addressed immediately."
al-Qahtani is a government employee as well as an activist. Earlier this year, she defied the driving ban by driving around Riyadh, the country’s capital, for 45 minutes.
Fighting for Rights
The struggle for women’s voting rights in the U.S. lasted for decades. In 1848, a group of women led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton met in Seneca Falls, New York, to discuss women’s rights. Thirty years later, an amendment to give women the right to vote was introduced in Congress. But it wasn’t until 1919 that Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. The amendment was ratified by all the states the following year and American women voted in the 1920 presidential election.
Other countries have also struggled with this issue. French women were not allowed to vote until 1944, and it wasn’t until 1971 that women in Switzerland were allowed to vote in federal elections. In recent years, women in Kuwait won the right to vote in 2005, and women in the United Arab Emirates secured the same rights in 2006. No women are allowed to vote in Brunei.