In Saudi Arabia, a Quiet Step Forward for Women

For all the attention on voting rights, the real progress may be in the culturally influential literary clubs, where women are now being elected as board members

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Veiled Muslim women look on as they see off their relatives leaving for Mecca / Reuters

When the headlines announcing that Saudi women would get the right to vote appeared on newspaper front pages around the world following King Abdullah's decree on September 26th, it might have led you to believe that Saudi Arabia was finally bringing progress for women. The first fruits of the Arab Spring seemed to finally be on offer in Riyadh. According to the Saudi columnist Sabria Jawhar, to call the King's decree "a historic moment would be an understatement." Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council in Washington, said that the inclusion of women would allow them to participate "in the decisions that affect their lives and communities." But the reforms, it turns out, will not kick in until the next elections, in 2015.

What Saudi women really have won is far more complicated than it might seem. Municipal elections in Saudi Arabia are both relatively new (in 2005, men participated in the first municipal elections since the 1960s) and, more importantly, relatively meaningless. Men elected to municipal councils have virtually no authority. Neither do members of the "Shura" Council, which women will be allowed to join. Despite this, conservative Islamists -- including Saleh al-Luhaidan, a member of the government-appointed Senior Council of Religious Scholars -- have voiced their displeasure with the King's decree.

But there is one piece of real good news: the prospect of women joining the boards of Saudi literary clubs. The inclusion of women had been under discussion since 2010, when the Ministry of Culture and Information released a list of guidelines for prospective candidates to these state-run clubs that did not expressly restrict women from participating in the election process. On Tuesday, the Riyadh Literary Club announced that four women (and six men) had been elected to its board. Women were also elected to the boards of similar clubs in other Saudi cities. Although Saudi literary clubs are not political venues per se, they have provided an important cultural and social space for Saudi journalists, academics, and intellectuals since the 1980s. In that time, the clubs have positioned themselves as rivals of the country's Islamists, struggling against religious networks for influence in the public sphere and for the chance to articulate the best path forward for Saudi society. While the clubs and their backers lack the public support of the omnipresent Islamists, they are hardly irrelevant. Joining the board should afford Saudi women the opportunity to participate in the clubs' decision-making processes in terms of organizing conferences, presenting papers, selecting speakers, and other professional activities.

The move also enjoins women to participate more directly in the kingdom's ongoing culture wars. Prior to the latest elections, conservative Islamists had objected to the inclusion of women in active roles at literary clubs. While Islamists would have Saudi women largely confined to the domestic sphere, this latest development signals -- at least symbolically -- that women's participation in the public sphere is on the rise. It also makes clear that prominent intellectual and literary networks see the struggle over women's rights as a key battleground for cultural influence and even supremacy. Saudi culture wars are nothing new, but with the rising support for women, they are heating up.

It should also be noted that the Riyadh Literary Club's newly elected president, vice-president, administrative official, and financial official are all men. The four women are merely "members" with no administrative position, something that troubles new board member Huda al-Dighafaq, who told Saudi newspaper Al-Madina:

Personally, I did not expect only four women to be elected overall as board members. I was surprised that some of our female colleagues, when asked, declared that they had no desire to occupy administrative positions, and some did not seem enthusiastic about the prospect of voting for a female colleague and preferred to vote for the men, who won the administrative positions. This signals a swift return to male domination. This has discouraged me greatly.

Another of the four newly elected women, Laila al-Ahaidib, said she does not share al-Dighafaq's disappointment. Al-Ahaidib expressed her satisfaction at the results of the election and questioned whether the board's administrative members really wield more authority.

As is often the case in Saudi Arabia, it appears that even the most symbolic of inclusive gestures in Saudi Arabia are contested, in more ways than one. But maybe this one will make a difference.