Saudi king gives women right to vote

Published: September 25, 2011
"Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election," King Abdullah said. PHOTO: AFP

"Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election," King Abdullah said. PHOTO: AFP

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia will allow women to stand for election and vote, the king announced on Sunday, in a significant policy shift in the conservative Islamic kingdom.    

In a five-minute speech, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud said women will also take part in the next session of the unelected, advisory Shura Council, which vets legislation but has no binding powers.

“Because we refuse to marginalise women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulama (clerics) and others to involve women in the Shura Council as members, starting from the next term,” he said in a speech delivered to the advisory body.

“Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote.”

Women’s rights are regarded as a litmus test for the government’s appetite for social and political reform. Saudi Arabia adheres to a strict version of Islamic law that enforces the segregation of the sexes.

“This is great news,” said Wajeha al-Huwaider, a Saudi writer and women’s rights activist. “Women’s voices will finally be heard.

“Now it is time to remove other barriers like not allowing women to drive cars and not being able to function, to live a normal life without male guardians.”

The king did not address the issue of women being allowed to drive. Although there is no written law against women driving, they are not issued licences, effectively banning the practice.

Women in Saudi Arabia must also have written approval from a male guardian, a father, husband, brother or son to leave the country, work or even undergo certain medical operations.

After entering the Shura Council chamber leaning heavily on a cane, King Abdullah, who is thought to be 87 or 88, read only a section of a longer prepared statement that was later released in full by the authorities.

The part he did not read included reference to Saudi foreign policy including the kingdom’s continued support for a Gulf-brokered plan for a power transition in Yemen.

Seeking change  

King Abdullah has long been pushing cautious political reforms, but in a country where conservative clerics and senior members of the ruling family oppose even minor changes, liberalisation has been very gradual.

He built a new university for students of both sexes and encouraged women to participate more in the labour market.

Despite calls on social media for widespread protests in Saudi Arabia during the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests in the Middle East and North Africa, the only noteworthy demonstrations were confined to the country’s Eastern Province, which is home to the country’s Shia minority.

Activists in the country have long called for greater rights for women. Ruled by an absolute monarchy supported by conservative Wahabi clerics, Saudi Arabia is a conservative country where religious police patrol the streets to ensure public segregation between men and women.

A campaign this summer by women who broke Saudi law by driving on the kingdom’s city streets prompted some arrests.

(Read: “Saudi women defy drive ban”)

Saudi Arabia will hold only its second nationwide elections in recent memory on Thursday for seats on municipal councils, but critics of the ruling al Saud family say the poll, in which voting is limited to men, is a charade.

Supporters of the absolute monarchy say the elections are designed to give Saudis a greater say in politics, but critics point out that the elections are for only half the seats on councils that have few powers.

The Shura Council, which vets legislation but cannot veto it or enforce changes, is fully appointed by the king.

“Despite the issue of the effectiveness of these councils, women’s involvement in them was necessary. Maybe after women join there will be other changes,” said Naila Attar, who organized a campaign Baladi (Arabic for My Country) calling for women’s involvement in the municipal council elections.

“I believe this is a step to involve women in the public sphere. It is the top of the pyramid and a step in the direction for more decisions regarding women.”

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Reader Comments (28)

  • Anon
    Sep 25, 2011 - 8:23PM



  • Saeed
    Sep 25, 2011 - 8:23PM

    Well that’s a good things to hear. They are forced to do this because of added pressure from human rights watchdogs, global media and milieu local uprisings, I believe.


  • xxx
    Sep 25, 2011 - 8:42PM

    haha!!! not yet??!!!


  • Munir Akram
    Sep 25, 2011 - 8:57PM

    What do you mean, they didn’t have this right before? This country is living in darkness.


  • Jeremy
    Sep 25, 2011 - 10:27PM

    Its a start but women should be given full rights just as the men.


  • Proud Pakistani
    Sep 25, 2011 - 11:20PM

    Funny reading comments by Indians and Pakistanis mocking Saudi when thousands upon thousands of Indians/Pakistanis are lined up outside Saudi embassy just to have a chance to work.Pathetic


  • Shaikh
    Sep 25, 2011 - 11:30PM

    Its definitely a positive step forward.Still lot needs to be done.I appreciate it.If only it was negative news,you would have seen all kinds of commentators- Ahmed,Jagjit Sidhu,Anthony Perumal,Pravin,Shiva-Yoni,and God knows who else run riot with their sick sarastic comments.They are silent now.Only 2 kinds of readers/commentators will be cynical or silent with regard to such positive news: 1)Many Indian readers,especially Hindu fanatics:A liberal newspaper like Dawn or ET, truly is a blessing for them since they are hungry for intellectual ammo which,ofcourse can be used to fulfil their queer and immature desire to play silly mind games against Muslims,since these 2 newspapers honestly admit the evil which happens in this Muslim country.Let them comment just once (each,and only once),using original names.What happens is that on these 2 forums anyone can come and use Muslim-sounding names to utter non-sensical cynical statements,which truly speaking are not the views of true Muslims- such are the poor moderation standards of both Dawn and ET forums.Such people comment just to satisfy their daily quota of Muslim-bashing,both implicit and explicit.If they were true liberals,they would have congratulated positive steps like the one taken by the Saudi King,and stopped acting cynical. 2)And yes, the second category of cynics is of Our own fanatics like AR Gilani and ROFLCopter who are apologists of Taliban basically.Luckily, many of the cynics are Indian Hindus posing as Muslims/Christians/secularists,rather than Pakistani Muslims.This means that not all Pakistani Muslims are radical and also that there is hope for change.


  • let there be peace
    Sep 26, 2011 - 12:00AM

    So generous of him. This proves Muslims have largest hearts and Saudi Arabia is most tolerant country in whole world.


  • Lauren
    Sep 26, 2011 - 1:32AM

    @let there be peace: that’s the funniest comment i’ve ever read. saudis still won’t tolerate women driving, leaving the home without a male relative, working, going to school or receiving medical care without a male relative’s permission, or asking for a divorce. saudi arabia also won’t tolerate non-muslims visiting mecca.

    saudi arabia being the most tolerant country in the world? HA! wake up. American women have been able to vote since 1920. Muslims have a LONG way to go


  • Babar F.
    Sep 26, 2011 - 1:53AM

    @Shaikh. Glad to see someone knows the age-old inner-working of the fine Indian mind. After-all Moguls used to hire Hindu geniuses specially to rule without being too visible. If they are able to turn whole world against us they can be used to help us too_ ofcourse if paid right, like old times. As far a Saudi Permit are concerned….things happen under pressure_slow feet dragging maybe.


  • Waleed
    Sep 26, 2011 - 2:10AM

    @ let there be peace: what? That’s an exaggeration. He just gave women the right to vote (in other words, caught up with most of the world), not give out the cure for cancer for free.


  • Sep 26, 2011 - 2:12AM

    So generous of him. This proves Muslims have largest hearts and Saudi Arabia is most tolerant country in whole world.

    @let there be peace

    You’re being sarcastic right?

    The protesters in it’s Eastern province and Bahrain would disagree. The brutal crackdown on them says otherwise about the Saudi government being the ‘most tolerant’…rather it shows their intolerance…you can also thank them for their twisted Wahhabi ideology that helped fund the proxy sectarian war on Pakistani soil.

    Guess bribing the local families by increasing their government subsidies wasn’t good enough. This should ease international pressure, as well as help consolidate their hold onto power over the kingdom as a parliamentary monarchy.

    While a step in the right direction, there’s still a looooong way to go. Apparently the ban on women driving has not been lifted.

    I’ll add also treating expatriates, such as the poorer Pakistani labour and domestic worker expatriates, better. There are some Pakistanis who have lived there for 3 generations and aren’t recognized as Saudi Arabian natives, hence lacking citizenship. Stuff like this should be addressed all over the ME.

    But one step at a time I guess.


  • Bilal
    Sep 26, 2011 - 2:19AM

    @Proud Pakistani:
    And how are the two things relevant? Your servant works for you but he might think your retarded


  • Ranjit
    Sep 26, 2011 - 2:42AM

    Great Analysis and Conclusion;

    And you have not received Nobel Prize yet?


  • Hina khokhar
    Sep 26, 2011 - 3:36AM

    A country living in darkness?its the richest biggest Arab economy of the world! though i fully agree wid sum rights tht women deserve here like driving a car etc…..a country living in darkkness has lowest crime rate…Period!


  • Hina khokhar
    Sep 26, 2011 - 3:37AM

    and yes many enlightened modern developed countries never had a female Pm or president!and fanatic extremist muslims of pakistan made Benazir Pm twice!


  • Dallas Ali
    Sep 26, 2011 - 4:00AM

    This is a ploy to keep the corrupt in power. These are God given right; the women in SA should not be fooled by is small gesture. The should force the evil govt out of power.


  • Pakistani
    Sep 26, 2011 - 6:33AM

    Wow were they living in caves before?


  • Proud Pakistani
    Sep 26, 2011 - 8:21AM

    Don’t criticize the hand that feeds you. That is all i am saying. Saudi is one of the biggest Arab economics , a member of G-20 group of nations, a economy which is booming at a 7 % and also being host to millions of Indians,Pakistanis, Bengali expatriates.


  • islooboy
    Sep 26, 2011 - 9:17AM

    there lives are pretty much like pathansRecommend

  • sami
    Sep 26, 2011 - 10:00AM

    “u can now vote, WHEN we have elections” Recommend

  • RizwanTKhan
    Sep 26, 2011 - 11:48AM

    finally they realized that women are human too.


  • Johnson
    Sep 26, 2011 - 12:12PM

    I dont think they lived in caves but may be very backward in life, however, there is hope for everyone now, women in SA should be able to work, drive, run business, im not too sure if they have right to work or run businesses.
    and who know SA may one day become a lovely country to visit.



  • Umer Farooq
    Sep 26, 2011 - 12:54PM

    @Islooboy…what do you mean by “”there lives are pretty much like pathans””….


  • Santosh
    Sep 26, 2011 - 1:50PM

    Saudi Arabia should be welcomed in to the 20th century. Too bad most of us are no longer in that century to welcome them there.


  • Truth From Pakistan
    Sep 26, 2011 - 4:29PM

    Now is the time for “Driving Licence”. Its never too late.


  • Babar F.
    Sep 26, 2011 - 5:52PM

    @Umer Farooq. He mean’t like in KPK where women are locked behind high walls or black-out burqas. Girls’ school to “women driving” is prohibited. No public mention of rights or treatment of women is allowed. Abuse, rape, murder go unchecked, illiteracy rate & poor health runs high. It look worst than Saudi Arabia don’t it? In KPK voting or driving right will be discussed “after” women are allowed to see the light of day.


  • malik
    Sep 27, 2011 - 9:26PM

    “Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election ..”

    How can you vote for a woman whose face you can’t see?


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