The right to vote in elections in a country that remains an absolute monarchy, where they still may not work nor travel without assent from a male relative nor drive a car, may seem a small step for the women of Saudi Arabia.
Yet King Abdullah’s unexpected move was a momentous turn in the culture wars that have marked his reign. It may presage more change, not only for women but in the relationship between royal house and clergy upon which the state was founded, and among rivals within a ruling family that faces mounting demands from subjects who see other Arabs pushing closer to democracy.
The king’s announcement on Sunday in the Shura Council that women would be allowed to join the hitherto all-male — and legally toothless — advisory chamber, and to vote in municipal elections, was welcomed as significant by women, who under Saudi law occupy an explicitly subordinate role to men in society, Reuters reports.
“These are chances for women, who think they can help in pushing the wheel of development,” said Lama al-Sulaiman, who as
vice president of the Jeddah chamber of commerce is among the few Saudi women to hold such a prominent office.
Unique in the world, Saudi women may not drive. Concealing attire is obligatory in public. In court, their testimony counts for less than that of a man. And they must have a male “guardian” to endorse major life decisions, from choosing to marry to taking a job or travelling abroad.
Though Abdullah, who casts himself as a reformer, appointed a woman as a deputy minister in 2009 — for women’s education — no woman has full cabinet rank nor serves as an ambassador.
But Hamida Alireza, a resident of the prosperous commercial hub of Jeddah, spoke for many Saudi women in saying that the rate of change had been satisfactory over the decade or so in which Abdullah has steered policy through an opaque political process in which other princes and clerics also have a big say.
“I think the pace, as long as we stay at this pace, is very good,” she said. “Three years ago none of this was on the table.”
The warm applause which greeted his five-minute speech in the Shura Council, and the silence from senior clerics who have voiced doubts in the past about women’s rights, suggest that the king had paved the way for this latest reform.
“Any opposition on a religious basis does not have any legs to stand on because it was done according to Islamic teachings,” said Hossein Shobokshi, a liberal Saudi newspaper columnist.
So far, the only opposition to the move has been in comments posted on social networking sites by individual conservatives convinced that Abdullah is corrupting their Islamic society.
“To Allah, to history and to our nation, King Abdullah’s reign has seen the most corruption in the history of al-Saud with regard to women,” Abdulrahman al-Luwaiheq posted on Twitter a few hours after the announcement.
It is unclear how far such sentiments are shared by more powerful clerics from the austere Wahhabi tradition, whose collaboration with the ruling al-Saud family lies at the heart of the Saudi kingdom, founded in its present form in the 1930s.
Previously stated positions among senior government-funded sheikhs, reveal profound misgivings about women’s rights.
The most senior, the Grand Mufti, in an undated web posting, has warned that involving women in politics could mean “opening the door to evil.”
Such conservatism is widespread in Saudi society, though state-sponsored restrictions on women have at times provoked broad disapproval — witness the popular outrage in 2002 when religious police blocked schoolgirls fleeing a fire because they were not fully dressed in the presence of men. Fifteen died.
Change — and reaction — are not new in Saudi Arabia, where clerics have conferred an aura of piety upon a dynasty that was quick to embrace the modern technologies its oil wealth bought, while accepting a religious model of society more in keeping with its tribal heritage than the gridlocked cities of 2011.
When King Faisal introduced education for girls in the 1960s, he suffered a conservative backlash. And when militants seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 over perceived moral decline, some clerics were sympathetic to them.
Though the al-Sauds may seem to many outsiders to run a state that, as home to Islam’s holiest sites, is a model of piety and traditional morals, their rule — and alliance with the United States — was an original cause of the hostility they face from al Qaeda and its Saudi-born founder Osama bin Laden.
Even far from the violent extremes, there has been much resistance to giving women greater freedom. Women’s rights activists faced criticism for campaigning for the right to vote in this week’s municipal elections — the king’s announcement will give them that right only at the next opportunity.
And when women campaigned for the right to drive this summer — some of them taking to wheel in defiance of the law — some conservatives set up a social media group encouraging physical attacks on any woman who dared to follow suit.
King Abdullah has countered resistance in various ways, employing both carrot and stick.
Last year he decreed that only members of the country’s top religious council had the power to issue fatwas, or religious edicts, a move that tried to sideline his most vocal critics.
And in 2009 he fired a senior scholar from an important post after he criticized the first mixed-sex Saudi university and spoke out against the teaching of evolution as an alien idea.
This year, the king has also encouraged clerical favour by big spending on building mosques and on the morality police, as well as by banning media criticism of senior clerics.
In a year when Arab Spring revolts have unseated secular autocrats, the clergy remain a powerful support to the Saudi monarchy, even as it seeks popular favour, too. Votes for women are a significant development for Saudi society, but will not rapidly diminish clerical influence over its politics.