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