Still No Political Rights for Saudi Women, but Political Influence

Their new voting rights mean little, but the long-oppressed women of Saudi Arabia may have demonstrated their ability to effect change

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Saudi women in Riyadh speak to the media after driving their vehicles in defiance of the ban on driving / Reuters

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah announced Sunday that Saudi women will finally be permitted to vote and even run in municipal elections starting in 2015, an enormous symbolic gesture toward women's rights that will make little actual difference in Saudi Arabian politics, where voting and elected bodies are both largely irrelevant. Still, symbolism matters, and the mere fact that the king felt compelled to do this suggests that women could already be exercising a new level of political influence.

On the surface, Saudi Arabia appears to be the Arab state least effected by the Arab Spring. Protests have been few and far between, and the monarchy looks as secure as ever. But, over the past few months, some Saudi women have been leading a quiet but increasingly effective movement for basic civil rights. While activists in neighboring Egypt and Yemen agitated for full-on regime change, Saudi Arabia's set their sights lower: the right for women to drive. Their campaign has been entirely peaceful and deliberately non-disruptive (the point being to show that society has nothing to fear from female drivers), but, appropriate to one of the world's most conservative societies, the push for Saudi gender rights is still a revolutionary one.

Women have not yet won the legal right to drive a car in Saudi Arabia, though in July many began driving in a show of defiance, and some still are. So it's telling that King Abdullah chose to hand women a largely meaningless right -- voting in a non-democratic society where elected bodies merely "advise" the monarchy -- rather than the more practical right they were asking for. But the idea that a woman could sit on one of the country's representative bodies come 2015, when the king says he may appoint some directly (how's that for democracy), is still revolutionary. This is, after all, Saudi Arabia we're talking about. Just as the act of driving has normalized the idea of driving in some parts of the country where more women can get away with it, could the act of symbolic political participation get Saudis accustomed to the idea of women playing a real political role? That seems to be King Abdullah's bet.

Still, there are a number of ways this could fall apart. It won't take effect until 2015; the next four years will provide plenty of opportunities for the country's conservative clerical establishment to throw up bureaucratic roadblocks or to try and overturn the decision altogether. The nature of the elected assemblies could change dramatically by then. And King Abdullah's past efforts at promoting gender rights -- something he appears genuinely interested in -- have done little to address the underlying social dynamics that makes life for Saudi women so difficult. The massive women's university he built was a great way to train Saudi women for professional careers, but has done little to alter the cultural, legal, or political barriers that prevent employers there from actually hiring women.

The real news here might not be King Abdullah's announcement, or any similar top-down attempt at opening up gender rights, important as such legal changes may be. The real news could be that the driver for this change appears to have been Saudi women themselves. After decades of being denied political participation, Saudi women are taking it on their own by organizing, demonstrating, and planning. Abdullah wants to give Saudi women some ownership of the political space, but they already seem to have it. It's not much -- the monarchs are still in charge, challenged only by the clerical elite -- but women are clearly showing more sway.