Saudi women’s vote great news– If this were 1911

HO AP A Saudi Arabian woman drives a car as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia’s ban on … Continued



A Saudi Arabian woman drives a car as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A Saudi lawyer and rights advocates say authorities will bring a Saudi activist to trial for defying the kingdom’s female driving ban.

The underwhelming news of the week is Saudi Arabia’s 87-year-old King Abdullah’s decree that Saudi women be granted the right to vote, apparently in the year 2015. This development, a piece of largesse from the absolute monarch of an oil-rich Islamic theocracy, is actually being hailed by some in the West as a great example of progress for women in the Islamic world in the wake of the “Arab spring.”

Why, the sky’s the limit! Eventually, Saudi women might even be allowed the now-forbidden privilege of driving, which arouses stronger conservative religious opposition than voting. The willingness of the king to grant the vote rather than a driver’s license is no doubt a measure of the relative value of the ballot and the car in a monarchy-theocracy where feudal religious law coexists with vast unearned riches. On Tuesday, just 24 hours after the momentous announcement about the vote, Saudi lawyer Waleed Abou Al-Khair indicated that Saudi authorities will bring women’s rights (a.k.a. human rights} activist Najla al-Hariri to trial for defying the Saudi ban on female driving Later in the day, that news was overtaken by the actual sentencing of another woman to 10 lashes for driving. My guess is that the sentence will never be carried out, because one of the ways the Saudi monarchy mollifies international opinion is by commuting such violent, medieval, religiously driven (you should excuse the expression) penalties.

Did I mention that women will be able to exercise their “right” to vote only with permission from a male relative? The headlines, all of them some version of “Saudi Women Granted Right to Vote,” somehow missed that little caveat.



Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud attends the opening session of a new term of desert kingdom’s Shura (consultative) Council on September 25, 2011 in Riyadh, during which he announced that he was giving women the right to vote and run in municipal elections, the only public polls in the ultra-conservative Gulf kingdom.

In the West, the people making much ado about this move range from government officials and businessmen (right, left and center), who just want to keep the oil flowing, to the usual misty-eyed multiculturalists, who see only opportunity in the popular uprisings that began last spring and wish to ignore the dangers to women’s freedoms if the influence of radical Islamic parties grows throughout the region.

The fight for women’s rights is relentlessly uphill in all countries where those with a rigid interpretation of Islam wield great political influence, and that means not only absolute monarchies but states, like Egypt, where women already possess many more rights than they do in Saudi Arabia. The women who are fighting for their rights in these countries are heroes and one can only hope that the hope and energy they invested in the demonstrations of the Arab spring will be rewarded. I do cherish that hope, but hope is not a fact.

The Saudi king may well have been motivated by the ruling autocracy’s fear that even such a tightly controlled society may not be immune to pressure for greater freedom exemplified in the spring uprisings. But that does not mean he deserves praise in the West for granting a “right” that may not even be exercised without the approval of a woman’s husband, father or older bother.

As Juan Cole and Shahin Cole observe in an outstanding article first published on the Tom Dispatch Web site and reprinted in Mother Jones, “The collective memory of how women were in the forefront of the Algerian revolution for independence from France from 1954 to 1962, only to be relegated to the margins of politics thereafter, still weighs heavily.”

The authors recall that “when a modest-sized group of 200 women showed up at Tahrir Square on March 8th to commemorate International Women’s Day, they found themselves attacked by militant religious young men who shouted that they should go home and do the laundry.”

Furthermore, only one woman was appointed to a commission to revise the Egyptian constitution in preparation for elections.

Bothaina Kamel, a Muslim and women’s rights activist, is running for the presidency and is, as might be expected, the only women ever to do so in Egypt. Kamel has spoken out against the persecution of Coptic Christians (which occurred during the regime of Hosni Mubarak and has intensified since he was overthrown). She supports equal rights for all religious groups and was an influential radio personality until her shows were taken off the air for running afoul of both conservative religious sensibilities and the Mubarak regime.

In May, Kamel was questioned by a military prosecutor after she protested personally to General Ismail Etman, head of the Moral Affairs Directorate of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, about virginity tests forced on women detained in political protests. She was interrogated for five hours after posting on Twitter about her contact with the Moral Affairs Directorate. (I just had to see that official title in print again, because it reminds me of the New York YMCA’s Society for the Suppression of Vice, headed in the late nineteenth century by Anthony Comstock.) Comstocks’s activities were no joke as his legions enforced the hypocritical public prudery of the Gilded Age and the Moral Affairs Directorate is no joke in Egypt today.

No one, by the way, is taking any bets on when Egypt’s presidential election, now scheduled for some time in 2012, will actually be held. Kamel is well aware that her outspokenness could place her in great physical danger, just as the women who staged the “drive-in” in Saudi Arabia are aware that they could be jailed for violating the country’s religion-based laws. These laws, grounded in the most rigid interpretation of the Islamic legal code, are designed to do nothing less than give men power over every physical movement women make.

As far as I am concerned, the only voices that count on these matters are the voices of women fighting the combination of religious and political power in many parts of the Islamic world. So I am disgusted by obsequious western praise for a king who gets together with some of the more “liberal” Islamic scholars in his country and graciously grants women the right to vote. That is, if the men in their lives will let them leave the house.

This patronizing attitude also strikes me as insulting to those Muslims (and Muslim leaders) who would not dream of denying women the franchise. Seriously, would anyone praise a non-Muslim government leader for imperially conferring such a basic right? This is all part of the double standard that economic conservatives apply to oil-rich countries and mealy-mouthed multiculturalists apply to even the most retrograde forms of Islam.

In looking-glass views of the Islamic world, a theocrat who cares enough about his country’s image to realize that it might be a good public relations move to make a legal gesture toward women deserves high praise. Abdullah is nothing more than the equivalent of a “good czar” who, in the old days in imperial Russia, did not authorize pogroms but only economic and social discrimination against Jews.

Susan Jacoby
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  • WmarkW

    I’ve heard it said that the Muslim world is much more diverse than the West, because we’ve reduced multiculturalism to varieties of arts, while all living the same lifestyle under the same type of government. Chris Hitchens often claims that Islam is just the most obvious example that religions have always been largely about control of women. Islamic apologists point out that the West’s venereal diseases and non-replacing birthrate are the inevitable result of voting, gender and sexual liberty, generating a selfishness and decadence that will lead to its inevitable decline.

    If one values societal order and family strength over the psyches of individuals, they’re not wrong. Five hundred years of the expansion of scientific thought, has turned us into a society whose people don’t need anything more, but don’t have a subsequent generation.

  • Mosamania

    Excuse me Susan but you don’t know anything about Saudi Arabia except was a grim image that is shown in your media feeds you.

    I am Saudi and I am also a Women’s right Activists but your demonizing of my country is not okay. We are heading int he right direction and it is best not to rush things. Abraham Lincoln rushed the no-slaves bill and got a civil war on his hands. The Shah of Iran rushed westernization in Iran and now we are dealing with the Iran you see today.

    Life in Saudi Arabia is much different than the grim outlook shown in your media. We are heading in the right direction in a steady pace and I want us to continue going this way. If you would know the demographics and the views of the Saudi people you would know that what he did is a huge step forward that many will follow and I would love to quote him on something here “Patience is beautiful”

  • ccnl1

    We will see what happens. In the meantime based on current events and history:

    Islam and it laws give women almost no rights and treats them like fodder for the male species as so bluntly noted by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her autobiography, Infidel.

    “Thus begins the extraordinary story of a woman born into a family of desert nomads, circumcised as a child, educated by radical imams in Kenya and Saudi Arabia, taught to believe that if she uncovered her hair, terrible tragedies would ensue. It’s a story that, with a few different twists, really could have led to a wretched life and a lonely death, as her grandmother warned. But instead, Hirsi Ali escaped — and transformed herself into an internationally renowned spokeswoman for the rights of Muslim women.”
    ref: Washington Post book review.

    some excerpts:

    p. 47 paperback issue:

    “Some of the Saudi women in our neighborhood were regularly beaten by their husbands. You could hear them at night. Their screams resounded across the courtyards. “No! Please! By Allah!”


    “The Pakistanis were Muslims but they too had castes. The Untouchable girls, both Indian and Pakistani were darker skin. The others would not play with them because they were untouchable. We thought that was funny because of course they were touchable: we touched them see? but also horrifying to think of yourself as untouchable, despicable to the human race.”


    “Between October 2004 and May 2005, eleven Muslim girls were killed by their families in just two regions (there are 20 regions in Holland). After that, people stopped telling me I was exaggerating.”

    p. 347

    “The kind on thinking I saw in Saudi Arabia and among the Brotherhood of Kenya and Somalia, is incompatible with human rights and liberal values. It preserves the feudal mind-set based on tribal concepts of honor and shame. It rests on self-deception, hyprocricy, and double standards. It relies on the technologial advances of the West while pretending to ignore their origin in Western thinking. Thi

  • Susan_Jacoby

    I doubt that you are a women’s rights activist by any definition that real Saudi women’s rights activists (the ones who don’t hide behind the anonymus Internet) use.

    And you clearly know nothing about American history, because Abraham Lincoln did not issue the Emancipation Proclamation until several years after the beginning of the Civil War. Given that it took another hundred years for the descendants of slaves to achieve such simple liberties as the right to take a seat on a bus or eat at a lunch counter with whites, it would seem that for the enslaved, patience is not so beautiful.

  • Rustylizard

    This article brings to mind many parallels I read about in the U. S. women’s rights movement covered in Susan’s novel Freethinkers.

    I wonder to what extent brave women who challenge Islamic establishments must fight against the restrictive religious attitudes held by their own sex. After all, their attitudes have been fashioned by the tenets of Islam, just as American women’s attitudes once were (and in many cases still are) by Christian doctrine.

    I once saw a disturbing news clip of a group of Islamic women challenging an American politician’s position that Islamic women should have greater rights. They were adamant that they didn’t want greater freedom because it annoyed Allah (more importantly, from a practical standpoint, it annoyed his earthly representatives). I can’t remember who the politician was, but it was very depressing because it presented an even higher hurdle for those who would initiate change.

  • Jihadist

    Can’t rush things in Saudi Arabia……

    Women given the right to drive?

    Everyday, they might drive chidren to and from school, go shopping, do their nails and hair, visit one another and gossip…

    Can’t have that.

    Women given the right to vote?

    Once every three, four, five years? And be driven to vote?

    Can have that. It’s a nice, slow, steady pace.

    Perhaps the women will vote for candidates who promise they will support women’s right to drive.

  • ccnl1

    The Jihadist for President/Prime Minister of Indonesia!!!

    Her platform:

    The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:
    ( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)

    Are you ready?

    Using “The 77 Branches of Islamic “faith” a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true “faith” (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings.” i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

    The First Five of the 77 Branches:

    “1. Belief in Allah”

    aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your cleansing neurons.

    “2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence.”

    Evolution and the Big Bang or the “Gi-b G-nab” (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the “akas” for Allah should be included if you continue to be a “crea-tionist”.

    “3. To believe in the existence of angels.”

    A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No “pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies” ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and “tin–ker be-lls”. Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

    “4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore.”

    Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply books written by humans for humans.


  • WmarkW

    But in Saudi Arabia, it isn’t even 1911 yet.
    Their chief executive (not figurehead of state) is a hereditary monarch.

    Hopefully, we’ll develop a synfuel that allows us the option to forgo petroleum soon. Which would give us leverage to make further purchases contingent on expansion of human rights, and the basis of their ship of state will go down like the Titanic.

  • Secular1

    Mosamania you are excused from these public fora, for good. Grim image of your beloved Dar-ul-islam is what people like you and your dear prince Bandar, in the past Zaki Yemani, and the entire pond scum of that royal family of yours does with every breathe ya’ll take. Oh! yes one just cannot rush anything, otherwise we will have a civil war on our hands and that would be bad. By your standards perhaps Lincoln was in too much of hurry and deprived you from bring your parcel of salves from that dar-ul-islam and make your stand on women’s right in Saudi Arabia from cozy Beverly Hills. Well Mosamania, I apologize to you on behalf of now deceased Mr. Lincoln, for depriving your Allah given privilege.

    So when do you think that minorities should be allowed to their books of fairy tales and superstitions, like you are allowed in this country – you call it Al Kittab or Koran, in your beloved Dar-ul-islam.

    You said “If you would know the demographics and the views of the Saudi people you would know that . . . . .”. I agree with you 100%, on that. As you put it that is a country of 25 million religious bigots, chauvinists and ignorant neanderthals. Mosmania for your beloved king and you patience may be quite beautiful, but for the poor slobs on whose back he treads patience is ugly.

  • ccnl1

    And the idiocy of it all is that Islam is based on the “angelic revelations” of the mythical Gabriel to one of the great con men of history, Mohammed. Such ignorance can be easily classifed as “vomit inducing”.