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A Saudi Arabian woman drives a car as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A Saudi lawyer and rights advocates say authorities will bring a Saudi activist to trial for defying the kingdom’s female driving ban.
The underwhelming news of the week is Saudi Arabia’s 87-year-old King Abdullah’s decree that Saudi women be granted the right to vote, apparently in the year 2015. This development, a piece of largesse from the absolute monarch of an oil-rich Islamic theocracy, is actually being hailed by some in the West as a great example of progress for women in the Islamic world in the wake of the “Arab spring.”
Why, the sky’s the limit! Eventually, Saudi women might even be allowed the now-forbidden privilege of driving, which arouses stronger conservative religious opposition than voting. The willingness of the king to grant the vote rather than a driver’s license is no doubt a measure of the relative value of the ballot and the car in a monarchy-theocracy where feudal religious law coexists with vast unearned riches. On Tuesday, just 24 hours after the momentous announcement about the vote, Saudi lawyer Waleed Abou Al-Khair indicated that Saudi authorities will bring women’s rights (a.k.a. human rights} activist Najla al-Hariri to trial for defying the Saudi ban on female driving Later in the day, that news was overtaken by the actual sentencing of another woman to 10 lashes for driving. My guess is that the sentence will never be carried out, because one of the ways the Saudi monarchy mollifies international opinion is by commuting such violent, medieval, religiously driven (you should excuse the expression) penalties.
Did I mention that women will be able to exercise their “right” to vote only with permission from a male relative? The headlines, all of them some version of “Saudi Women Granted Right to Vote,” somehow missed that little caveat.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud attends the opening session of a new term of desert kingdom’s Shura (consultative) Council on September 25, 2011 in Riyadh, during which he announced that he was giving women the right to vote and run in municipal elections, the only public polls in the ultra-conservative Gulf kingdom.
In the West, the people making much ado about this move range from government officials and businessmen (right, left and center), who just want to keep the oil flowing, to the usual misty-eyed multiculturalists, who see only opportunity in the popular uprisings that began last spring and wish to ignore the dangers to women’s freedoms if the influence of radical Islamic parties grows throughout the region.
The fight for women’s rights is relentlessly uphill in all countries where those with a rigid interpretation of Islam wield great political influence, and that means not only absolute monarchies but states, like Egypt, where women already possess many more rights than they do in Saudi Arabia. The women who are fighting for their rights in these countries are heroes and one can only hope that the hope and energy they invested in the demonstrations of the Arab spring will be rewarded. I do cherish that hope, but hope is not a fact.
The Saudi king may well have been motivated by the ruling autocracy’s fear that even such a tightly controlled society may not be immune to pressure for greater freedom exemplified in the spring uprisings. But that does not mean he deserves praise in the West for granting a “right” that may not even be exercised without the approval of a woman’s husband, father or older bother.
As Juan Cole and Shahin Cole observe in an outstanding article first published on the Tom Dispatch Web site and reprinted in Mother Jones, “The collective memory of how women were in the forefront of the Algerian revolution for independence from France from 1954 to 1962, only to be relegated to the margins of politics thereafter, still weighs heavily.”
The authors recall that “when a modest-sized group of 200 women showed up at Tahrir Square on March 8th to commemorate International Women’s Day, they found themselves attacked by militant religious young men who shouted that they should go home and do the laundry.”
Furthermore, only one woman was appointed to a commission to revise the Egyptian constitution in preparation for elections.
Bothaina Kamel, a Muslim and women’s rights activist, is running for the presidency and is, as might be expected, the only women ever to do so in Egypt. Kamel has spoken out against the persecution of Coptic Christians (which occurred during the regime of Hosni Mubarak and has intensified since he was overthrown). She supports equal rights for all religious groups and was an influential radio personality until her shows were taken off the air for running afoul of both conservative religious sensibilities and the Mubarak regime.
In May, Kamel was questioned by a military prosecutor after she protested personally to General Ismail Etman, head of the Moral Affairs Directorate of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, about virginity tests forced on women detained in political protests. She was interrogated for five hours after posting on Twitter about her contact with the Moral Affairs Directorate. (I just had to see that official title in print again, because it reminds me of the New York YMCA’s Society for the Suppression of Vice, headed in the late nineteenth century by Anthony Comstock.) Comstocks’s activities were no joke as his legions enforced the hypocritical public prudery of the Gilded Age and the Moral Affairs Directorate is no joke in Egypt today.
No one, by the way, is taking any bets on when Egypt’s presidential election, now scheduled for some time in 2012, will actually be held. Kamel is well aware that her outspokenness could place her in great physical danger, just as the women who staged the “drive-in” in Saudi Arabia are aware that they could be jailed for violating the country’s religion-based laws. These laws, grounded in the most rigid interpretation of the Islamic legal code, are designed to do nothing less than give men power over every physical movement women make.
As far as I am concerned, the only voices that count on these matters are the voices of women fighting the combination of religious and political power in many parts of the Islamic world. So I am disgusted by obsequious western praise for a king who gets together with some of the more “liberal” Islamic scholars in his country and graciously grants women the right to vote. That is, if the men in their lives will let them leave the house.
This patronizing attitude also strikes me as insulting to those Muslims (and Muslim leaders) who would not dream of denying women the franchise. Seriously, would anyone praise a non-Muslim government leader for imperially conferring such a basic right? This is all part of the double standard that economic conservatives apply to oil-rich countries and mealy-mouthed multiculturalists apply to even the most retrograde forms of Islam.
In looking-glass views of the Islamic world, a theocrat who cares enough about his country’s image to realize that it might be a good public relations move to make a legal gesture toward women deserves high praise. Abdullah is nothing more than the equivalent of a “good czar” who, in the old days in imperial Russia, did not authorize pogroms but only economic and social discrimination against Jews.