Last Sunday, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced that starting in 2015 Saudi women would be granted the right to vote and run in municipal elections. He also promised that women would be appointed to the Shura Council (a council that advises the king.)
This is a stark contrast to the previous perceptions of women as only having the capacity to participate in fields which "suited her nature” as politics was perceived as no place for a woman.
The appointment of Saudi women to the Shura Council and the right to participate in municipal elections is vital to the youthful generation in Saudi Arabia. The involvement of our generation can be fully understood by taking a step back to January of this year, when a campaign called “Beladi” meaning “My Country” in Arabic, was organized.
The objective of this campaign was to demand the right to vote in municipal elections this year, which had been clearly denied to women. A Facebook event was created, along with various region-specific Twitter hashtags, in order to coordinate a symbolic protest on April 24, 2011.
On that day, Saudi women went to their local voting booths and demanded to be registered. Two Saudi women managed to convince the men at the voter registration booth of their right to vote and were successfully able to register.
There was nothing more touching than seeing one of those Khobar women, Heba Al-Butairi, expressing her happiness in interview on Al Arabiya News at the recent voting rights given to her fellow Saudi women.
This is what makes the current generation of Saudi Arabia different. In the absence of political institutions concerned with Saudi women’s affairs, they have now discovered other tools such as social media to virtually organize and achieve social change on the ground, and they are eager to do so. And while it can be argued the recent reforms were a response to the pressure mounted by the Arab Spring, the fact that some demands are being met, even if it is cosmetically, is being witnessed by all Saudi women and gives a strong surge of confidence to push for more.
King Abdullah announced greater political participation for women in the future, yet women in Saudi Arabia are still not allowed to drive.
On the same day King Abdullah gave his speech in which he said, "We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society in every aspect,” a Saudi woman named Najla Hariri was summoned and went through intense questioning for an hour and a half regarding her affiliation with the Women2Drive campaign and the larger Right2Dignity movement, which aims to restore all Saudi women’s rights. She has been stopped numerous times before by traffic police and has consistently refused to sign any pledges (not to drive). However, on this occasion, she was forced to sign a pledge under the threat that she would be detained.
Today, we find ourselves faced with yet another contradiction, a much more startling one: A woman named Shaima was sentenced to 10 lashes simply for driving her car in Jeddah.
It is difficult to conceive how yesterday women rejoiced at the right to vote, and today they hear of a woman to be lashed for a simple act such as driving.