Women in Saudi Arabia will not need a male guardian's approval to run or vote in municipal elections in 2015, when women will also run for office for the first time, a Saudi official said Wednesday.
Shura Council member Fahad al-Anzi was quoted in the state-run al-Watan newspaper saying that approval for women to run and vote came from the the Saudi king himself, and therefore women will not need a male guardian's approval.
Despite the historic decision by King Abdullah to allow women the right to participate in the country's only open elections, traditional male guardian laws in Saudi Arabia's tribally structured society remain largely unchanged. Women cannot travel, work, study abroad, marry, get divorced or gain admittance to a public hospital without permission from a male guardian.
Though Saudi Arabia is a deeply Islamic country, conservative tribal traditions and values can often run equally deep, and inform the social structure of the country in many complex ways.
Hatoun al-Fasi, a women's history professor in Riyadh, said just the announcement that Saudi women can run for office and vote without permission will stir debate.
"It's being brought up out of the blue and could open doors to discussions that we have enough of already," al-Fasi said.
"Male guardianship laws are a problem that the Saudi woman has been dealing with for years. It's our number one demand that these laws be revoked," al-Fasi said. "It goes against the social rights that Islam gives women."
Al-Fasi and other Saudi women have been pushing the Saudi government for social reforms and greater rights for women, including to allow women the right to drive and for the dissolution of male guardianship laws. Saudi women have staged protests defying the ban.
Saudi female activist Wajeha al-Hawidar said Wednesday's announcement means another barrier for women in Saudi Arabia has been lifted. However, she said the government might not see it through, because of expected resistance by those opposing such reforms.
"There are people in the government willing to listen reasonably, but people in society are not," al-Hawidar said. "They will hate you just for being different, and with these people there is no common language."
Abdullah Al-shihri and Aya Batrawy, "Saudi Women To Run, Vote Without Male Approval" Salon December 28, 2011
"Saudi women to run and vote in local elections without male guardian permission in 2015" Washington Post December 28, 2011
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today