Women in Saudi Arabia got the right to vote in municipal elections this week. But is this seemingly progressive decision just a way of drawing attention away from rights Saudi women still don't have, like driving?
A post on the Ms. blog bolsters this theory — Trish Calvarese writes that the very day King Abdullah announced the new voting law, "a woman named Najla al-Hariri was brought in for questioning about her ongoing driving campaign by the Authority of Prosecutors Committee." And although it's not technically illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, al-Hariri will face trial in a few months. Meanwhile, the BBC reports that a woman identified as Shema has just been sentenced to ten lashes for driving. Ms. says Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a driving "crackdown" — a source tells Calvarese "that there seems to be a secret underground push by Saudi religious authorities to detain and persecute any woman who drive[s] in Saudi Arabia." The same source says a woman who tried to drive herself to a hospital because she was severely bleeding may face a beating for trying to save her own life.
As activists noted yesterday, the right to vote doesn't mean all that much in a country where the most important political positions are still unelected. And since women still need permission from a male relative to vote, the new freedom may not have all that much impact on their lives. The ability to drive unaccompanied (which King Abdullah has also promised but never delivered), meanwhile, would make a big practical difference for many women. The King appears to have offered a largely symbolic freedom instead of one that would make a big day-to-day change in women's lives. It's not clear whether this is a calculated attempt to distract people from what really matters, but it may have that effect, especially internationally. And while granting women the right to vote in municipal elections is a nice gesture, we shouldn't forget the many real changes the Saudi government has yet to make.