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Saudi king grants women right to vote

Activists hail order as step for equality

By Neil MacFarquhar
New York Times / September 26, 2011

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NEW YORK - King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia granted women the right to vote and run in future municipal elections yesterday, the biggest change in a decade for women in a puritanical kingdom that practices strict gender separation, including banning women from driving.

Saudi women, who are legally subject to male chaperones for almost any public activity, hailed the royal decree as an important, if limited, step toward making them equal to their male counterparts.

They said the uprisings sweeping the Arab world for the past nine months - along with sustained domestic pressure for women’s rights and a more representative form of government - prompted the change.

“There is the element of the Arab spring, there is the element of the strength of Saudi social media, and there is the element of Saudi women themselves, who are not silent,’’ said Hatoon al-Fassi, a history professor and one of the women who organized a campaign demanding the right to vote earlier this year. “Plus, the fact that the issue of women has turned Saudi Arabia into an international joke is another thing that brought the decision now.’’

Although political activists celebrated the change, they also expressed caution about how deep it would go, and how fast.

Some women wondered aloud how they would be able to campaign for office when they were not even allowed to drive. There is also a long history of royal decrees stalling, as weak enactment collides with the bulwark of traditions ordained by the Wahabi sect of Islam and its fierce resistance to change.

In his announcement, the king said that women would also be appointed to the Majlis Al-Shura, a consultative council that advises the monarchy on matters of public policy. But it is a largely toothless body that avoids matters of royal prerogative, like where all the nation’s oil revenue goes.

“We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society, in all fields of work according to the guidelines of Islamic law,’’ the king said in an annual address to the Shura that was broadcast nationally, noting during the five minutes he spent on the subject that the country’s senior religious scholars had endorsed the change.

King Abdullah, the 87-year-old monarch who has a reputation for pushing changes opposed by some of his half brothers among the senior princes, said that the monarchy was simply following Islamic guidelines and that those who shun such practices are “arrogant.’’

Some analysts described the king’s choice as the path of least resistance. This year, many Saudis have been loudly demanding that all 150 members of the Shura be elected, not appointed as they are now. By suddenly putting women in the mix, activists feared, the government might use the excuse of integration to delay introducing a nationally elected council.

Political participation for women is also a less contentious issue than granting them the right to drive. Even as the king made the announcement, activists said that Najla al-Hariri was being hauled in for questioning yesterday for continuing her stealth campaign of driving.

Hariri has been vociferous in demanding the right as a single mother who cannot afford one of the ubiquitous foreign chauffeurs to ferry her children to school. In recent weeks, a woman even drove down King Fahd Expressway through downtown Riyadh, activists said.

Abdullah has made several efforts to safeguard the kingdom from the upheavals sweeping other Arab nations, including uprisings that have toppled regimes that once appeared as secure as Saudi Arabia.

In March, the king announced a $93 billion package of incentives, jobs, and public services to ease the hardships experienced by some Saudis.

About the same time, he also sent troops to neighbor and close ally Bahrain to help that nation’s Sunni ruling family crush an uprising by majority Shi’ites pressing for equal rights and democratic changes. But in August, the king withdrew the Saudi ambassador from Syria to protest President Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown on a seven-month rebellion that calls for his ouster and the formation of a democratic government.

Yesterday, Washington, Saudi Arabia’s closest Western ally, praised the king’s decision.

A National Security Council spokesman, Tommy Vietor, said the action recognized the “significant contributions’’ women have been making in Saudi Arabia. The move would give Saudi women more ways to participate “in the decisions that affect their lives and communities.’’

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