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Published:September 26th, 2011 17:23 EST
King Abdullah Granting Women Right to Vote in Saudi Arabia: Is this a Step Forward?

King Abdullah Granting Women Right to Vote in Saudi Arabia: Is this a Step Forward?

By Donna Cavanagh


King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia granted women the right to vote for the first time and has promised that women will be allowed to run in future municipal elections. The first elections where women will be able to vote will take place in four years.

Saudi Arabia, which follows the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, segregates the s(e)xes in public locations such as schools and restaurants and requires women to obtain permission from their male guardians, usually a husband, father, brother and sometimes even a son, before traveling or making decisions about their everyday lives including shopping, education and health care. The current Saudi law also recognizes fathers as the head of their families and that adult daughters who do not respect their father`s decision could be imprisoned or lose custody of their children.

While the right vote to vote is clearly seen as the first step toward ending discrimination against women, there is a great deal of doubt about the sincerity of the new law which allows women the right to vote since women are still banned from activities that other women throughout the world enjoy such as driving and holding down jobs where they would be obligated to interact with men.

King Abdullah did open the first co-educational university in Saudi Arabia in 2009, and he did appoint the kingdom`s first female deputy minister. These actions are considered to be token advances  since many empty promises have been made in the past about elevating the status of women.

In 2011, women armed with international drivers` licenses got behind the wheels of cars to protest the imprisonment of a 33-year-old Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman who decided to disobey the female driving ban. She was arrested and accused of acting in an immoral manner.

Saudi officials are digging in their heels in the wake of the unrest in other countries in the Middle East. They are holding onto their strict tradition while trying to appease the growing number of women dissatisfied with their station in Saudi Arabia. Granting women the right to vote is seen by women`s rights advocates as a ploy to avoid the political troubles that plagued Egypt, Syria and Middle East nations.