In 2011, Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah officially granted women the right to vote and run in elections starting in 2015. Now, that decree is taking effect and voter registration is beginning across the kingdom. On August 30, candidates will also begin to register; it’s estimated that around 70 women will do so.
There is already evidence of women’s political participation in the country. In a historic move in January 2013, 30 women appointees joined the Shura Council, which gives recommendations to the king (but lacks any law-making powers). The upcoming municipal council elections already include a campaign run entirely by women, though it’s facing pushback. The Baladi (“My Country”) Campaign planned to hold training sessions to teach women about political campaigning, but the Saudi government stopped them from doing so.
Despite this newfound suffrage, many women’s rights activists argue that there are still many changes left to be made in the country. Saudi women are still banned from driving cars, for example, and often suffer a complete lack of freedom under the Saudi “guardianship” system (though it is slowly being phased out thanks to a UN recommendation).
In 2011, when King Abdullah announced women’s suffrage, Amnesty International criticized him, remarking that “while moving in the right direction, Saudi Arabia is moving far too slowly.” Now, like Amnesty International four years ago, critics are quick to point out the lack of women ministers and the limited roles of municipal councils. Introduced in 2005 with the aim of expanding political freedom in Saudi Arabia’s monarchical system, municipal councils have instead been criticized for their limited abilities. And although municipal elections are supposed to be held every four years, in 2009 the Saudi government “postponed” the elections for “re-evaluation;” these stalled elections were finally held in 2011, the same year that the late King Abdullah granted suffrage to Saudi women. Political analysts point out that voting in Saudi Arabia’s elections is essentially “expanding political repression” because of how meaningless the elections are. “The votes that women will now have, then, are good for half of the seats for a largely advisory group in a system completely dominated by the palace,” reports CNN.
While some hope that this is at least an advancement of women’s cultural status in the country, even that assumption may be overeager. An Amnesty International analysis of women’s rights in the country showed that a 2013 domestic violence law has rarely been implemented, and a prominent women’s rights activist was recently held in prison without any charges.