Editor’s Note: Vanessa Tucker is the vice president for analysis at Freedom House. The views expressed are her own.
Women to be allowed to vote in Saudi municipal elections
Vanessa Tucker: It's an advance on paper only
News this week that women are registering to vote in elections in Saudi Arabia has garnered plenty of attention. The move, described by the kingdom as a “significant milestone in progress” is in keeping with a 2011 royal decree permitting women to run and vote in municipal polls to be held in December. But before we celebrate a step toward equality in one of the world’s most notoriously misogynist countries, it is important to look a little closer at this supposed reform.
The reality is that when you view this change in the wider context of Saudi Arabia’s extreme and expanding political repression, it is clear that it is an advance on paper only. Indeed, the right to vote in thoroughly closed political systems is essentially meaningless – what do you vote for in a system that effectively forbids meaningful political opposition of any kind?
Public political dissent is illegal in Saudi Arabia, which is rated as “Not Free” in Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties; Saudi Arabia is a mainstay of the 10 worst-scoring countries in the world. Citizens that even hint that political and human rights should be expanded have been tried as terrorists within a judiciary system that is closely aligned with the monarchy.
Meanwhile, elections have limited impact, to put it mildly. Political decision-making revolves around the King, who appoints his own cabinet and then ratifies the legislation that the body passes. Decision-making bodies like the Majlis al-Shura, the king-appointed 150-member consultative council, act in a consultative capacity. Local municipal elections were introduced in 2005. Half of the seats on these councils are determined by vote, and the other half by royal appointment. The votes that women will now have, then, are good for half of the seats for a largely advisory group in a system completely dominated by the palace.
Even the advent of the Internet and social media – touted as the single greatest breakthrough in political participation in recent history – has had a limited impact on political change. This is in large part because of the extraordinary lengths to which the government has gone to restrict freedom of expression online and off.
Of course, women are at the sharp end of political repression in Saudi Arabia, where they still cannot drive legally (and can be tried in a court established to try terrorism cases for attempting to). In addition, religious police physically punish women who do not adhere to the country’s strict dress code in public, and sexual activity outside of marriage is illegal. Daughters often receive half of the inheritance to which sons are entitled. And a woman must have a male representative to access the court system, in which the testimony of a man is typically equal to that of two women.
All this means that while the Saudi government has touted the inclusion of women in municipal elections as a step forward in a larger process toward enhanced women’s rights, the idea of incremental change is a myth given the thoroughly closed nature of the Saudi system.
Ultimately, in an era of expanding global consensus on political and human rights, authoritarian systems are ill-designed to accommodate incremental reforms of the type the Saudis are implementing. And while steps toward political choice erode the authoritarian facade of complete control, real protection of human rights requires genuine mechanisms to enforce the rule of law, which are antithetical to systems like Saudi Arabia’s that lack political accountability.
So while I would love to be able to celebrate this supposed advancement of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, I simply can’t. Not because women’s political participation is not vitally important to any prosperous and thriving country, but because participation in a meaningless system is meaningless itself. Calling it anything else is gives far too much credit to a repressive style of government that deserves none at all.