For Saudi Women, Suffrage is Finally a Reality

It has been 95 years since women won the right to vote in the United States, but for Saudi Arabia the fight is still fresh. The country is slowly progressing into a more representative and female empowered government, though much work still remains.

Image by Andy Thies


The declaration came in 2011; King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud erased Saudi Arabia as the only country on Earth without women’s suffrage. Though Saudi women now have the legal right to vote and run as candidates for local office, there are still mixed feelings within and outside the country.

Many praise the hard work done by women in order to achieve the right. Others further believe that the change wasn’t nearly enough. And despite the resonating voices of women’s rights leaders around the globe, critics who promote traditionalist ideals persist. But no matter the views of any one person, women now play an active role in a part of Saudi life from which, not so long ago, they were barred. This is a monumental change for a traditionalist nation, one built partially upon the implicit belief that women were unable to make such decisions.

Infographic by Andy Thies and Jesse Howe

Abdulaziz Ibn Saud

Saudi Arabia traces its political roots largely back to one man: Ibn Saud, the first monarch and founder of Saudi Arabia. Saud united four distinct regions that comprised the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula into Saudi Arabia in 1932. Upon doing so, he enforced a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Salafi. The modern monarchy, descended from Saud, continues to implement Sharia law within the economy, military, judiciary, and marital obligations of all Saudis.

This interpretation further establishes a guardianship over women by men. Even today, the majority of decisions involving Saudi women are dictated by men in their lives.

The social restrictions for women are many. Unsurprisingly, Saudi-led women’s rights groups have been as far back as the 1960s. However, the policy of institutionalized gender-oppression was not strongly challenged until the 1990s, when 47 women decided to drive. Yes, drive. The acquisition of a driving license is prohibited for all Saudi women. Therefore, those who operate a motor vehicle without one, face legal consequences. Additionally, women must legally be accompanied in public by a male guardian at all times. Most of these women protesters were let go from their jobs and harassed, but in the process opened a vitally important dialogue on gender equality. The systematic oppression of women in Saudi simply could be ignored no longer.

Policy or Society?

The fight for women’s rights easily charged into the 21st century, though it has been met with brute opposition. Manal al-Sharif, a famous Saudi women’s rights activist, posted a video on YouTube in 2011, once again challenging the societal view that women should not operate cars. In the video, she rallied women to take control of their own lives by driving. She was later arrested and detained for nine days but not for driving a car (she had an international driver’s license). According to Saudi authorities, she was guilty of “disturbing public order”. This, like so many other instances of oppression for Saudi women, highlights how traditional views are more driven by cultural status quo than explicitly worded laws.

Four years ago, Saudi women’s suffrage suffered similar semantics. Women showed up at polling stations in 2011 but were turned away due to the lack of women-specific polling stations. This was months after the King’s decree for women to be included in elections.

As a result, the 2015 election brought with it sex-segregated polling stations, finally paving the way for women’s suffrage in action.

However, the biggest challenge women face in Saudi Arabia isn’t government but their own communities. Many risk harassment or losing their jobs if they attempt to make waves. Many men attempt to prevent their wives or daughters from participating by refusing to drive them, keeping required documents out of reach, or simply withholding information. Many speculate that the turnout for women would have been higher but many women weren’t even aware the elections were taking place.

One major hurdle for the election was the registration dates. Voter registration took place Aug. 22nd –  Sept. 14th: the country’s most popular travel period. This time frame also ended just before the annual Hajj pilgrimage, an annual event where Muslims travel to the city of Mecca.  It is a mandatory religious duty for those financially able to make the journey.

Even if women were able to make time to register, the required documentation, such as an official ID card, was often difficult to acquire and had to be arranged by a legal male guardian. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s ultra conservatives launched a social media campaign warning of moral decay and “consequences in the afterlife” if women were elected.

Infographic by Andy Thies and Jesse Howe

Skeptical Voters

When the decree came in 2011 that legally granted women’s suffrage, the western world was hesitant to believe that true reforms were being made in the traditionalist nation. Many believed that, compared to the rights women had in the west, this achievement was little more than a pat on the back for women. Many Saudi women agreed.

Many Saudi women don’t see the recent election as a significant achievement because it has virtually no effect on daily life. They believe that the King has allowed women to vote simply to improve Saudi Arabia’s image in the western world.

Due to Saudi Arabia’s monarchical governance, many women see the right to vote as an invitation to be ignored with the rest of Saudi society. Even Saudi men feel like their vote counts for very little in a society where the most important positions are hand selected by the king.

Instead, the public votes for local representatives only. However, municipal councils are very limited. Though they oversee urban development projects in their districts, they have no control of how money is spent. Even the voice that the people do have in local government is contested by council seats appointed by the king.

What women are truly striving for is social equality, to be able to make decisions for themselves and their families.  Guardianship rules have hindered their personal and professional lives in many ways. In many cases, they are obstructed from enrolling in universities or travel abroad to visit a male doctor. Only since 2014 has emergency medical treatment from a male doctor been allowed for women without approval from a guardian.

Guardianship Rules: Women in Saudi Arabia are treated as minors from birth to death. A male guardian in Saudi society must accompany a woman in public. Like many other restrictions on women, there is no official law for guardianship rule.

Saudi Arabia ranks 130 of 142 for women equality.

Even though women and men have been legally desegregated in the corporate world, interactions between the two are highly restricted. Public buildings, such as universities and banks, often have separate entrances for men and women.

Even activities such as participation in sporting events are highly scrutinized, even likened to prostitution by ultra-conservatives. Early in 2015, Saudi Arabia even made a bid for hosting a male-only Olympic Games. During the London Olympics, Saudi women competing for their country did so knowing that their communities denounced them.

The Future of Saudi Women

Though it may be an unfortunate truth, but it will take time to bring about true change for which women in Saudi Arabia. Though they face adversity and harassment in everyday life, supporters of the movement are growing in numbers. Women continue to be appointed to higher positions and take prominent roles in their communities.

Although the election was not the celebration in Saudi Arabia that it was in many other countries, the victory is real. Municipal councils may seem like a political footnote within a strict monarchy, but the very presence of women in policy-making positions provides real inertia for equalizing women’s rights throughout the country.

Much like the fights that came before it, the right to vote wasn’t handed to women. It was the hard work of supporters everywhere pressuring their governments and communities to change. For many women, the right has triggered a psychological empowerment. Numerous women are already planning their own candidacies for the next election. Perhaps not only will they be successful, but also drive themselves to the polling stations as well.

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