In a chaotic Middle East that in some respects seems to be fast retreating in time, the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia has allowed, for the first time in its history, women to vote. Good for the ladies and congratulations to the 21 who actually won municipal posts.
Of course, most of them still can't drive a car. Or go anywhere without a chaperone. Or appear in daylight without an abaya, a long black cloak and a head scarf.
Are the seeds of democracy sprouting in the desert kingdom? True, more than 80 percent of Saudi women showed up at the polls on Dec. 12. But anyone assuming the kingdom is at long last liberating its women is deceived.
While women across Saudi Arabia happily marked this historical milestone, they couldn't even drive themselves to the polling stations. Instead, they waited for male drivers -- a significant reminder of the limitations still in place in the ultra-conservative kingdom. And for women to vote, a royal decree had to be issued by King Abdullah.
Let's not forget the circumstances under which the late king even issued this decree. It came in response to the wave of Arab Spring demonstrations that swept many countries in the region, including the Saudi kingdom. To shore up legitimacy and quell demonstrations, the king shrewdly issued the decree allowing women to vote in addition to a more famous $100 billion giveaway in economic benefits to Saudi citizenry, mostly to Saudi youth. So let's not fool ourselves that Saudi Arabia is finally ready to trade its harsh, misguided interpretation of Islam for democracy.
Will the kingdom now allow women to drive, initiate divorce, choose a career and be independent of men? Hardly.
The high turnout of women in Saudi municipal elections is inspirational. The question, however, is whether Saudi women's ability to vote and even run for municipal office suggests social trends raised during Arab Spring are percolating, hinting at a different future in the Middle East than one of ethnic conflict, religious tension, economic disparities and civil war.
Since the emergence of Arab Spring on Dec. 18, 2010, I never expected Saudi women to be allowed to vote. Yet this sudden change came during tumultuous times in the kingdom and region. I don't know under what context historians will look back at 2015, marked by civil war in Syria, terrorism by ISIS on the world stage, Russia's military engagement in the region, failed states in Libya and Yemen, the military coup in Egypt and, above all, the Iran nuclear deal with the West.
Yet, Saudi women's ability to run and vote rate considerable mention in world history, if only to highlight, however briefly, the rich possibilities. Unfortunately, wait till another Saudi woman gets behind the wheel only to find herself thrown in jail. Wait till one challenges tradition by not wearing an abaya from head to foot (which, just for the record, is completely un-Islamic, as it is neither prescribed nor required according to the Quran or Sunna (the verbally transmitted record of teachings, deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). Rather, it is a tribal tradition limited to pockets in the Muslim world -- Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Yemen and Pakistan, among others.
Many restrictions Saudi women face defy logic and basic decency. For instance, they cannot travel without the consent of a male family member known as a guardian; marry without the consent of a guardian; work without the consent of a guardian; mingle with unrelated men in public places such as restaurants; and divorce as easily as a man. And for those quick to blame Allah, know this: these practices are again contrary to the true teachings of Islam.
It seems to me the kingdom is cherry-picking what it will allow women to have. No surprise there: Entities within the kingdom and elsewhere regularly cherry-pick verses from the Quran and statements from the Sunna to fit their own political agenda -- not exactly an unfamiliar habit in the West, for that matter. Under no circumstance do I suggest Saudi women voting is not worthy of praise. It's just more symbol than substance in a region fiercely resistant to change and brimming with tribal mentality.
Anne Patterson, the U.S. State Department's regional expert, argues that, "Even during these difficult days, there is evidence that irreversible changes are under way in the region." If only it were true. In fact, Arab Spring has turned into an Islamist Fall. Months after revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Jordan and others, we see only political chaos, lost economic opportunities, failed civil institutions and a social breakdown with millions unemployed and hopeless.
As for the Saudi kingdom, till it is purged of misguided religious advisers, fanatical Wahhabism ideology and twisted interpretation of Islam to justify whatever the ends, nothing will change. I do not believe Saudi Arabia or any other country in the region is ready to embrace democracy the way you and I understand, appreciate and practice it.
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General Election: Nov 3, 2020
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