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Democracy and Women’s Rights: Saudi Style
October 2011
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia granted Saudi women on September 25, 2011 the right to vote and to run as candidates in local municipal elections. The King also decided to appoint women to his Consultative Council.


While any movement toward democratic governance and alleviation of women’s maltreatment is welcome, these actions are theatrics devoid of substance. Why?


To begin with, Saudi municipal councils have no decision-making authority—only an advisory role on local affairs. Secondly, the government appoints one half of the councilors, thus, ensuring compliance with government policy. Thirdly, elections are anathema to Riyadh. For example, the King’s decision will not be implemented until 2015 at the earliest, the presumed date of the next municipal elections. Indeed, following the 2005 elections, ten months had to elapse before the government announced the councils and the 2009 elections were delayed until September 29, 2011. That the royal decision was announced four days before September 29 suggests a reaction to the Arab Spring.


Notwithstanding the right to vote and run as candidates, Saudi women’s ability to be effective candidates and councilors would be hindered by Saudi institutional and cultural discrimination against women and the country’s strict enforcement of the rules on segregation of the sexes.


As guardians, fathers, husbands, and brothers control whether the women in their lives may or may not attend school, work, start a business, travel, or receive health care. Saudi women are even banned from driving motorcars. Under such conditions, it would be difficult to see how a woman might campaign for office, meet electorates, and explain her election platform, assuming her guardian would acquiesce to her candidacy in the first place.


The list of required gender reforms in Saudi Arabia is long. Suffice it to say, however, that unless guardianship rules and segregation of the sexes are abolished, the decision to grant women the right to vote and to run in local municipal elections is superfluous. Unless Wahhabi public discourse, which depicts women as being “light on brains and religious beliefs”, is replaced by the reported respect and reverence the prophet accorded to Khadija, his first and only wife for twenty-five years, women will not get their human rights. How likely is it that such changes might evolve? The answer is nil. Why? Because serious political and religious reforms in Saudi Arabia would undermine the Wahhabi foundation upon which the al-Saud family rule is constructed.


As for the decision to appoint women to the Consultative Council, that act is superfluous as well. The Consultative Council, as the name suggests, is advisory. It has no law making powers. Saudi Law is the Quran and the Sunna as interpreted by Wahhabi clerics and the King’s diktat. Formed in 1992 to advise the king on “important matters” the Consultative Council’s 150 members plus its chairman are appointed by the monarch. The Council includes a dozen female “advisors”.


Genuine political and religious reforms require the democratic election of a representative legislative assembly to replace the current non-representative, non-legislative Council.


Is democratic election of a legislative assembly Islamic? The answer is in the affirmative. The prophet Muhammad reportedly said: “My community reaches no agreement that is an error”, according to the canonical Hadith collections of Abi Dawood, Al-Tirmithi, and Ibn Maja.


This Hadith makes the truth an outcome of the Muslim community’s agreement, a concept consistent with the legislative assemblies of the modern age. For centuries, gauging the public’s mood in the far-flung lands of the Muslim empires was not feasible. For Sunnis, the Consensus of the Ulama became a practical approximation to the agreement of the umma. However, the advent of electricity, computers, and modern polling techniques made the fulfillment of the Hadith possible.


Should women be included in such law making assemblies? The answer is yes. Since God promises paradise in the Quran (16:97 and 40:40) to all believers who do right, men or women, there is no reason why women should be excluded from legislative assemblies. On the extent to which acquiescence is required to render a communal agreements valid, Ibn Maja reported the Prophet saying: “In the event of disagreement, the opinion of the majority must prevail”.


Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey, countries representing about 60% of world Muslims, enjoy democratically elected legislative assemblies, including women deputies, prime ministers, and presidents.


Saudi Arabia and the other Arab countries fight the emergence of democratically elected legislative assemblies. To perpetuate their absolute rule, Arab kings and presidents, along with the palace ulama preach that democratically elected legislative assemblies are un-Islamic. Further, they invoke Quranic verses and Hadith traditions to indoctrinate the populace into believing that blind obedience to their one-man dictatorial rule is a form of piety. In the Saudi desert, democracy and women’s rights are a mirage.