Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah may have decided to let women vote in 2015 and to take seats in the Shura Council, which advises the monarchy. But any move towards granting women rights in the kingdom will face stiff opposition from many Islamic clerics and right wing menfolk.
The 87-year-old King Abdullah’s “cautious reform” is set against a backdrop of popular unrest across the Arab world, and the overthrow of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, But it is, indeed, a cautious reform, which still won’t allow women to drive or even to venture outside the home without accompanying male relatives as chaperones. Separation of the sexes in public places continues to be strictly enforced.
The world’s biggest oil exporter is not, of course, one that other nations will seek to upset but, given the wind of change sweeping across the entire region, will Saudi women really benefit? The Shura Council has had little influence on government policy and Saudi Arabia is still ruled by an absolute monarchy using the Qur'an as their official constitution.
The democratic theme tune is not playing in Saudi Arabia, despite King Abdullah being photographed with young female students who weren’t wearing the full-face niqab favoured in Saudi society. He has also supported the setting up of a mixed sex university and the appointment of women to senior positions.
But women in his kingdom will not be holding their breath. Their king may be in favour of cautious change, may want to encourage young women, but they are all too aware that for a society standing still, despite the Arab Spring, change won’t arrive in a hurry. Social conservatism remains the norm and disenfranchised women who exist by permission of their male relatives are hardly in a position to make demands.
A tiny step on a very long road to freedom?