Saudi Arabia is allowing its female citizens to vote and run for office in municipal elections starting in 2015, a Saudi government official said Wednesday.
Fahad al-Anzi, Shura Council member, was quoted in the state-run al-Watan newspaper as saying the decision came from Saudi King Abdullah, reported The Associated Press.
As a strict and conservative Islamic society, Saudi Arabia typically doesn't allow women many options they can exercise without first gaining approval from their male guardians. Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, said such male guardians are typically a woman's father if she is unmarried or her husband if she is. They approve or deny a variety of actions women in other countries take for granted, he said, including obtaining passports, traveling overseas or earning an education.
Gender segregation is a significant force in Saudi society, he added, given the country's most predominant branch of Islam, Wahhabism, encourages separate spheres for males and females.
"Politically, women have few rights in Saudi Arabia but men have few rights as well," Gause told The Christian Post. "Socially, a woman's role is very constrained there. Because of the strict gender restrictions, they can't play the same parts men play in the business or political worlds."
Gause noted that some of Saudi Arabia's gender segregation is performed informally. At times, he said, it even affects women's job prospects there. There's little political argument in Saudi circles, he added, given the country is ruled by an absolute monarchy that dictates most national decisions. The country's current monarch is King Abdullah.
"King Abdullah is benevolent," Gause said. "He has tried to open up the country a bit from its conservative Islamic stance, especially on the issue of women's rights. He is by all accounts very popular. Still, there are people who will be approving of this and others that will oppose it as it goes against their interpretation of Islam."
Saudi women cannot study abroad without approval and accompaniment by their male guardians. In addition, they also cannot receive non-emergency medical treatment from government hospitals or attend school without male approval.
Yesterday's policy change announcement comes after years of work by feminist and human rights activists.
"Male guardianship laws are a problem that the Saudi woman has been dealing with for years," Hatoun al-Fasi, a women's history professor in the Saudi capital city of Riyadh, told AP. "It's our number one demand that these laws be revoked. It goes against the social rights that Islam gives women."
Gause said outside observers should remember that in an absolute monarchy, citizens hold little political power. As such, he said a role in Saudi Arabia's municipal government is a small concession for its government to grant Saudi women.
"There's not a lot of political argument in Saudi Arabia," Gause said. "This is a first-time thing. It could lead to more things in the future. It depends on the next king and the king after him."
Gause added that many Arab countries are reevaluating their societies following the Arab Spring protests that swept the region earlier this year. Saudi Arabia, he said, remains particularly stable given its rich royal family can often meet citizens' concerns with money and power. As such, he concluded that it's best waiting on how history will judge the Saudi government's voting concessions to women.
"This is one of those things we'll either look back on as a token gesture or the start of greater changes," Gause said. "Only time will tell."