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Saudi Reforms Thwarted by Puritanical Laws

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The Saudi monarch's decree to give women voting rights for municipal elections in 2015 was generally welcomed as a giant step on the road to reform.

However, the celebration could be premature in a country where women cannot have coffee with male colleagues for fear of arrest and imprisonment, and a woman who was caught driving was punished with 10 lashes, recently revoked by royal edict.

Even men's voting rights are limited. On Sept. 29, the second, male-only nationwide election took place when 5,000 men ran for more than 1,000 seats for mostly ineffectual municipal councils. The government appoints half the members and real power rests with provincial authorities controlled by the royal family.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, King Abdullah introduced massive public spending and promised women's suffrage. Since coming to power in 2005, he has launched reforms considered significant for Saudi Arabia, although cautious by Western standards. In 2009, he appointed the first female minister, Norah al-Faiz, as deputy education minister for women; the hardliner chief of the mutaween religious police was removed; and women were allowed to travel abroad or stay in hotels without permission of male guardians, provided local police were informed. Women were also permitted to study law and register a business without first hiring a male manager. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, opened in 2009, has no gender segregation in lectures and a cleric who issued a fatwa against this reform was dismissed. In May this year, the king opened a women's university near Riyadh for up to 50,000 students. Recently, he decreed that in 2013, women would be appointed to the Shura council, a 150-member government advisory body.

Abdullah might be an ardent reformer, but he is 88 years old and his successor might have more conservative views on women's rights. Moreover, Saudi society is resistant to change and even the monarch does not have absolute power. His hands are tied in the alliance forged in the mid-18th century between Prince Muhammad ibn Saud and a Muslim cleric, Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab. In this symbiotic relationship, the House of Saud has custody of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and control of government, while committed to the spread of Islamist Wahhabi ideology. Religion and education are the domains of Wahhabi clerics, whose extremist interpretation of Islam and sharia was amplified by Salafis who fled Nasser's Egypt for Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. In 2002, the application of strict sharia led to the deaths of girls who tried to escape from their burning school but were beaten back because they were not wearing headscarves.

The Saudi kingdom is facing internal demands for change that will not be suppressed by claims of corrupting influence from the West. Human rights groups, such as The Society for the Defence of Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Women Revolution on Facebook and Right2Dignity, are gaining adherents. Men are becoming more openly supportive of women's rights and female journalists more outspoken.

Granting female voting rights could undermine centuries of institutional and cultural "gender apartheid," causing restrictive laws and cultural practices to unravel. For example, a woman might demand the freedom to choose her dress or husband. Unless electronic voting were possible, separate female polling booths and electoral officers would be required, and women would need permission from their husbands to leave the house to vote. In 2005, female Saudi engineer Nadia Bakhurji identified a loophole in the legal requirements for candidates and applied to stand for election to a municipal council, together with five other women. They were thwarted because of the absence of segregated polling stations.

The ban on driving creates similar dilemmas. If women were allowed to drive, female traffic officers would be required and women drivers monitored in case they broke the law by taking a male passenger who was not a relative.

Vacillating tensions between modernising and traditional outlooks have impeded reforms. In 2008, following the right to drive campaign led by Saudi woman reformer Wajeha al-Huwaider, it was announced the ban on driving would be lifted. But women are still waiting.

Change is possible from within, as shown in Kuwait where women campaigned for the right to vote and run for office in municipal councils and parliament. They achieved their objectives in 2005, and the next year, 30 women stood for parliament amid accusations they were "blasphemous, anti-patriotic agents of the West," promoting "promiscuity and divorce and homosexuality." Despite the Islamist obstruction, four women were elected to the 50-seat assembly in 2009.

Pressure to modernise is unlikely to come from the West. Dependent on Saudi stability for setting oil prices and making petro-dollar investments, the West is willing to overlook the kingdom's gender discrimination and worldwide spill of Wahhabi ideology.

Women's suffrage is laudable but elections will ultimately disappoint without a passable civil society, including multiple political parties that meet the minimum standards of pluralism and tolerance, and an education curriculum focused on debate instead of rote learning. Long overdue moves to reappraise archaic family laws and cultural practice would enlighten the region and empower women to add fresh social, political and economic resources.

Originally published in The Australian.

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