By Vaagisha Das:
In 2011, when Saudi Arabia was in the throes of the Arab Spring, the late King Abdullah issued a royal decree that allowed for the much oppressed women of the country to participate in political activities. This has come into effect four years later, as women gear up to take part participate in elections this week. As per the new law, women can now choose their representatives- and be chosen as representatives – into the Consultative Council, a royally appointed advisory body to the king.
On paper, this seems like a small step towards granting women rights that have been long demanded by them; however, upon closer look, will this really do any good in a notoriously misogynistic country that heavily restricts women’s rights? Despite relentless campaigning by women- whose names still cannot be mentioned on social media as it would violate the strict Sharia codes for women– if this is the best that the country can do, then the future of human rights in Saudi remains bleaker than ever. Ironically, women are being given free agency in a sphere which is the easiest to control and regulate, and ultimately, dismiss. With the country being an autocratic hereditary monarchy, the king is still the one holding power, and any decisions made by the municipal body could be easily overridden. In keeping with the illusion of control, women are allowed to vote- and be voted- into office, but this is to the lowest governing body in the country, the aforementioned municipal council, which at best is just an advisory body to the king, who is answerable to none. The rubber stamp institution itself is not wholly elected by the people- half of the members are royally appointed. So the election decision remains symbolic at best, and the myth of the incremental changes impossible in the thoroughly closed nature of the Saudi political system.
The figurehead situation is unnervingly similar to the gram panchayats in India- again, the lowest level- where women are ‘allowed’ to be voted as Sarpanch, yes, but their husbands are the ones controlling political decisions behind the curtains. If this juxtaposition seems apt- where we contrast the situation in the drearier parts of Indian society with the new ‘reforms’ of Saudi Arabia and find little difference- then the country cannot be labelled as progressing at all, and the improvement’s unworthy of the name.
As some government officials say, it is indeed true that this decision will have a positive psychological effect on the society, that it will be seen as empowering for women, but what about their current reality, which is anything but? The Islamic country has rules that essentially establish guardianship over women- they cannot go anywhere without a legal male escort (upon fear of punishment, which includes lashings), cannot mix with unrelated men, cannot go near cemeteries, and the list goes on. Women are not even allowed to drive, thus depriving them of any freedom in a heavily male dominated society. Little wonder then, that the country ranked 130 out of 146 countries in gender equality- the country denies basic human rights to half on its population. Creating a facade where women can vote but still not drive themselves to the voting booth, as Amnesty International puts it- is far from a step in the right direction.
The move, described by the kingdom as a “significant milestone in progress“, thus is a surface reform for the continuing fights over human rights issues in the country. Such empty laws will do little other than to continue masking the regime of gender apartheid. Women now have equal rights to participate in a rigged, meaningless system- is photoshopping the picture really a cause for celebration?