The women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia received a fillip this week after the country began registering them as voters and candidates. The move comes four years after the late King Abdullah had passed an order to that effect in 2011, allowing women to have a say in choosing their leaders at the municipal level or aspiring to leadership themselves.
Saudi Arabia, one of the most prosperous of nations in the Middle East, has always been at the bottom of gender equality charts. The rules imposed in the country are derived from Sharia, Islamic law, which is based on a very conservative interpretation of the Quran. Women form 42 per cent of the country’s population and they have been consistently outperforming men on literacy.
Even as Saudis rejoice, they are quick to point out that the country has a long way to go. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that doesn’t allow women to drive. The prescribed dress code for women is burkha and while rules don’t demand they cover their faces, wearing make-up remains a no-no. Other rules also border on the bizarre, like those forbidding them from buying Barbie dolls or reading uncensored fashion magazines. The system is skewed in favour of men in other ways too. There is no legislation to address domestic violence or sexual harassment, for example.
Some critics are sceptical if the latest developments will make a difference to the gender imbalance. Saudi Arabia, being a monarchy, appoints half the members of every municipal council, leaving only the other half to be picked by a democratic process. Also, crippling laws that prohibit women from venturing out alone without a male chaperone might hardly allow them to exercise their newly granted rights.