Many people associate Islam with Saudi Arabia, assuming that what happens in the Saudi Kingdom reflects the law and spirit of Islam. While it is true that the Arabian Peninsula is the birthplace of Islam, the Saudi Kingdom and its specific interpretation of Islam does not represent the faith more broadly.
There are many practices that occur in Saudi Arabia that Muslims around the world disagree with and would argue actually go against Islam. Among these is preventing women from full participation in the public sphere, treating them as minors unable to make decisions for themselves, and dispensing seemingly arbitrary punishments.
It is true that King Abdullah is trying to make changes regarding women; however, he has been met by negative reactions from clerics. His most recent attempt to change the situation of Saudi women is passing a law that would allow women to vote and run in local elections in 2015. However, Saudi women’s rights activists do not see this as enough.
Their first problem is the fact that women are prevented from driving, something that many women have fought to change. According to Lubna Hussain in an article for NBC News, women would rather have the right to drive than to vote. Overturning the driving prohibition would signify real change. Moreover, these elections do not have that much of an impact on national policy. In fact, there was a very low voter turnout–300,000 registered of the country’s 18 million–in the most recent elections (only the second time men were allowed to vote). Thus, there is already skepticism even among Saudi men about the impact of this vote.
Saudi women also face the challenge of guardianship laws that prevent them from working, studying, traveling, or opening a bank account without the permission of their guardian. So even if women were allowed to vote, they still cannot fully function as citizens in the public sphere. As I maintained in other posts, in the early Muslim community, women were active participants, some even fought in wars. So the question in regards to the vote is: what if their guardian prevents them from voting?
Another problem relates to how punishments are issued. Since Saudi Arabia maintains that it uses Islamic law, there is an assumption that the relevant stringent guidelines are applied as well, which unfortunately is not the case. Moreover, in some cases, the punishments have no basis in Islamic law at all. The most recent example is Shaima Jastaina who was sentenced to 10 lashes after she participated in the June 17th campaign to drive. Although King Abdullah recently overturned the verdict, the fact that she was sentenced to physical punishment in the first place for a cultural prohibition is disconcerting. I would argue that women are disproportionally the victims of arbitrary punishments over men.
While King Abdullah is trying to make strides for Saudi women with this vote, the Kingdom has a long way to go in improving the status of women so that they can fully participate in the public sphere, which would reflect more accurately the historical status of Muslim women in the early Muslim community.
What do you think about King Abdullah allowing women to vote in local elections? Do you think that this will lead to change? Do you think Saudi Arabia represents Muslims worldwide? Please leave your comments below.