Saudi Arabia: For women, votes are keys to the kingdomNEW YORK It was a pivotal moment in the country's history. Liberals hailed it as the perfect opportunity to kick-start change, but powerful religious conservatives asserted their power and the country has had to resign itself to waiting four more years.
I am not talking about the U.S. elections in November but about the run-up to Saudi Arabia's first nationwide polls, scheduled for February. Voter registration started in the kingdom last month, but only men filled out the forms: In October, the country's interior minister ruled out participation by women as voters or candidates. Five women had already announced their candidacy in the municipal elections, which the Saudi government has touted as part of a long-awaited reform program.
Women's ability to participate was a barometer of the Saudi government's willingness to face down hard-line Wahhabi clerics who have lobbied to keep the polls yet another male preserve in the kingdom, where women are not only prevented from driving, as is well known, but cannot travel or be admitted to a hospital without a male guardian's written permission.
Now that women and supporters of their enfranchisement have had to set their sights on the 2009 polls, it appears that once again the government has offered up women as the bargaining chips to assure ultraconservative clerics that their stranglehold on public mores remains complete.
The announcement that women would not take part in the elections came at a time when oil prices had reached a 20-year high, flooding the kingdom with petro-dollars reminiscent of the 1970s oil boom. Reformers in Saudi Arabia had hoped the cash influx would embolden the government to move beyond mere lip service to change. And in Saudi Arabia, nothing is more worthy of reform or more painful to consider than women's issues.
Consider what happened when they were discussed for the first time at a public forum in June as part of "national dialogues" launched by Crown Prince Abdullah. The dialogues are a chance for Saudi intellectuals, including women, liberals and members of the country's Shiite minority, to debate reform.
The three-day meeting ended with 19 recommendations for the prince, including a request for special courts for women's issues and a public transport system for women. Regardless of whether such requests will be granted, the abiding image of the meeting was that of a delegate who accused female teachers who had been educated abroad of trying to spread "Western feminist ideas" among their students.
This showdown captured the essence of the struggle - the face-off between ultraconservative men who dismiss calls for women's rights as inspired by the West and a generation of Saudi women who are the most educated in their country's history. Fifty-five percent of Saudi Arabia's university graduates are women, but restrictions on where and in what fields they can work mean they make up only 4.8 percent of the work force. Despite such restrictions, Saudi women own 20,000 firms - some 5 percent of all registered businesses in their country.
In contradiction to the Wahhabi contention that women's rights are Western-inspired, Saudi women need only look to their sisters in neighboring Gulf countries to see how different their lot could be. In October, the leader of Oman gave a woman the social development portfolio, making her the third woman to hold a cabinet post and the fourth with a ministerial rank. In November, a woman was named as the economy and planning minister of the United Arab Emirates, though women still lack the vote there.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are in fact the only three Arab countries without suffrage for women. All three are close U.S. allies, and yet the Bush administration, which made much of women's participation in Afghanistan's recent elections, is strangely quiet on women's rights and suffrage in these Gulf countries. The silence is particularly ironic considering that Iraq was the first Arab country to give women the vote, in 1948.
Ferial Masry, who missed becoming the first Saudi native to hold elected office in the United States when she lost her race for the California State Assembly in November, told me that one of the reasons she ran was to give hope to women in her country of birth.
The Saudi government must stop sacrificing women at the altar of hard-line Wahhabi clerics. It should make clear today that women can take part in the 2009 elections.
(Mona Eltahawy is a columnist in New York for Asharq al-Awsat, the London-based Arabic newspaper.)