Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah at his Riyadh Palace in April. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesIn his annual speech broadcast Sunday on Saudi Arabia's state-run television station, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia said that women would be allowed to nominate themselves or other candidates for the next set of local elections, effectively giving them the right to vote in the Arab nation.
Though other nations and women's rights activists hailed the announcement as "good news," the move may be largely symbolic: Women will be able to participate in the next round of municipal elections, not in the one that is slated to take place on September 29-but no one knows when the next one will be held. This week's municipal election is only the second one that's taken place in nearly 50 years. And even though they'll be able to hold local office and serve as members of the King's group of advisers known as the Shura council, women still aren't allowed to hold cabinet positions, travel outside of the country without permission from a male relative, or drive a car.
The same religious rules that are interpreted to mean that women are not allowed to drive also prevent women from obtaining a passport, opening a bank account, admitting themselves to a public hospital, work, marry, divorce, or go to school by themselves without permission from a male relative who acts as their guardian. The rule applies to foreign women living in or visiting the conservative Muslim country as well, even though there is no actual law against driving.
"It will be odd that women who enjoy parliamentary immunity as members of the council are unable to drive their cars or travel without permission," columnist Jamal Khashoggi told the Associated Press. "The climate is more suited for these changes now-the force of history, moral pressure and the changes taking place around us."
"Women's voices will be heard finally," Saudi women's rights activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider told CNN. "Now it's time to remove other barriers like not allowing women to drive cars and not being able to function and live a normal life without a male guardian."
"To celebrate our victory to cast ballots in municipal elections and run for office, we must also acknowledge the Arab Spring and the spilled blood of our Middle East neighbors," wrote Sabria Jawhar, a columnist for the Saudi Gazette. "Without them, we may still be begging for our rights."
The Obama Administration issued a statement praising King Abdullah's decision, calling it "an important step forward in expanding the rights of women in Saudi Arabia."
"We welcome Saudi King Abdullah's announcement today that women will serve as full members of the Shura Council in the next session, and will have the right to participate in future elections," the White House statement read. "These reforms recognize the significant contributions women in Saudi Arabia make to their society and will offer them new ways to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and communities."
But on the same day that the King made his announcement, Saudi women's rights activist Najalaa Harriri was summoned for questioning, ArabNews.com reported. She had been detained the day before, and will stand trial about a month from now, along with several other women. Their crime? Driving a car.
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