Saudi King Abdullah announced Sunday that the nation's women will gain the right to vote and run as candidates in local elections to be held in 2015 in a major advancement for the rights of women in the deeply conservative kingdom.
In an annual speech before his advisory assembly, or Shura Council, the Saudi monarch said he ordered the step after consulting with the nation's top religious scholars, whose advice carries great weight in the kingdom.
"We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society and in every aspect, within the rules of Sharia," Abdullah said, referring to the Islamic law that governs many aspects of life in the kingdom.
The right to vote is by far the biggest change introduced by Abdullah, considered a reformer, since he became the country's de facto ruler in 1995 during the illness of King Fahd. Abdullah formally ascended to the throne upon his predecessor's death in August 2005.
Abdullah said the changes announced Sunday would also allow women to be appointed to the Shura Council, the advisory body selected by the king that is currently all-male.
The council, established in 1993, offers opinions on general policies in the kingdom and debates economic and social development plans and agreements signed between the kingdom and other nations.
It should be kept in mind that municipal elections and holding elected office are new for everyone in Saudi Arabia, not just for women. Saudi Arabia held its first-ever municipal elections in 2005.
The kingdom is to hold its second municipal elections on Thursday, but like the first elections, participation will be limited to men.
In both cases, practical considerations and the difficulty of preparing for women to take part at short notice were the official reasons given for the postponement of the decision to allow women to vote. When the Shura council recommended to the king this month that the ban be lifted, it was too late to do so this year. Preparing separate polling stations for men and women at such short notice posed too much of a logistical problem.
In announcing the reforms, Abdullah cited the teachings of Islam to justify his decision to go against long-standing Saudi social customs.
"Muslim women in our Islamic history have demonstrated positions that expressed correct opinions and advice," he said, citing examples from the era of Islam's Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.
He said the members of Saudi Arabia's clerical council, or Ulema, praised and supported his decision.
He also acknowledged the yearning for greater social freedoms in the kingdom.
"Balanced modernization, which falls within our Islamic values, is an important demand in an era where there is no place for defeatist or hesitant people," he said.
Chairman of the Municipal Election Commission, Abdul Rahman Al-Dahmash, said the participation of women in the next election as voters and candidates would strengthen the Kingdom's electoral experience.
Jedaie Al-Qahtani, spokesman of the commission, described the king's announcement as historic. "It allows women to participate in municipal elections on an equal footing with men," he pointed out. He said the decision came in line with the king's desire to involve all members of the society in nation-building efforts.
"Saudi king grants voting rights to women" CBS News September 25, 2011
"Saudi women to vote in 2015" Chronicle Herald September 26, 2011
Nesrine Malik, "Saudi Arabia's slow progress on women's rights" The Guardian UK September 25, 2011
P.K. Abdul Ghafour, Sultan Al-Tamimi and Galal Fakkar, "Saudi society to change forever" Arab News September 25, 2011
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today