Saudi Arabia's Teeny, Tiny Step Forward

Women in Saudi Arabia finally went to the polls on Saturday, but in reality it was a very, very, very small sign of progress.

12.12.15 10:37 PM ET

Today, Saudi women emerged from polling places, offering Saudi Arabia a PR victory, beaming as they voted for the first time in the country’s municipal elections, publishing selfies, with the hashtag of #SaudiWomenVote, the mandatory black abaya, or robe, of one voter, dragging on the tile floors of a polling place, a Burberry purse dangling from her arm, a son with a Batman hoodie accompanying his mother in another photo. 

It seems like a moment of great triumph, as women were allowed to not only vote but compete for the first time, in a race for seats on 284 municipal councils. However, the women faced a few conditions on their newfound freedom: a man had to drive them to polling booths; they had to venture outside their homes with hair and bodies cloaked head-to-toe “Islamically” in yards of fabric; they could only run for office if they weren’t blacklisted, for example, for the alleged “crime” of demanding equal rights, like driving a car; women running for office couldn’t directly talk with men as they campaigned—a state-sanctioned system of inequality.

We must absolutely support the “suffragettes of Saudi Arabia,” as the brave Saudi women are being called, who dare to challenge state-imposed sexism and misogyny to stand up for their rights.  The Arab News, an official media outlet of the government, ran a story, headlined, “Huge excitement as Saudi women go to the polls,” featuring some of those brave suffragettes.

But the participation of women in the Saudi elections today is a hollow, superficial and regressive expression of the system that is entrenched in the House of Saud’s theocracy: gender apartheid.

On the eve of election, the Saudi Gazette, another state media outlet, dared to write a story that was a reality check on the fanfare, headlined, “Few hopes for breakthrough.” In another story, reflecting the deeply-embedded barriers that women face to equal rights, it challenged a memo at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that issued a “harsh” warning against men and women meeting together in staff meetings, ordering them, instead, to meet via at “TV circuit system,” typically used absurdly when male professors teach female students.

As a liberal Muslim feminist, who pulled my headscarf off my head when my family and I landed on the tarmac in Amman, Jordan, after doing the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in early 2003, I cannot hand the government of Saudi Arabia a public relations victory, until it dismantles its oppressive and inhumane system of gender apartheid and theocratic dictatorship, which seeks to control the movement, thoughts and voice of its citizenry and allowed “guests.” In Saudi Arabia, the religious police required my mother, niece and I to cover up every strand of our hair and travel with my father as our mandatory wali, or “male guardian,”

 As one observer wrote on Facebook, “Don't be fooled.” And former human rights lawyer Amanda Taub put it well when she wrote, “Let’s give Saudi Arabia the world’s tiniest gold star for allowing women to vote.”

Certainly, America denied women the right of women to vote for too long, with Congress finally ratifying the 19th amendment, allowing women to vote, in 1920. Tears came to my eyes when I showed my son, 13, the HBO depiction of America’s suffragettes, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns in “Iron Jawed Angels.” 

As a Muslim woman in America, I felt the modern-day civil society tragedy of Saudi Arabia last month when I drove myself to vote in America’s elections, turning off Route 7 in northern Virginia to pull into the parking lot of Forestville Elementary School, a thin cotton flower print scarf falling loosely over my shoulders, my hair flowing in a warm autumn wind. Outside the polling place, I spoke at great length about creek runoffs and soil erosion to a male neighbor running for the soil and water board, and then I stepped inside the polling station to vote, no male guardian watching over me.

Last week, I was proud to stand in Washington, D.C., with fellow Muslims to announce a new initiative, Muslim Reform Movement, in which we stated clearly that we are against theocracies, sexism and misogyny of the type that the government of Saudi Arabia practices, and we are for peace, secular governance and human rights, in which women receive equal rights to men and all people enjoy freedom of movement, thought and faith and, importantly, non-faith, with apostasy and blasphemy not a crime. We assert that sharia, or religious law, is manmade.

Indeed, today’s vote, with all of its restrictions, is emblematic of the country’s repressive interpretation of sharia. Just this week, on the eve of the Saudi election, Ensaf Haider, the brave wife of Saudi writer Raif Badawi, published a message on Facebook, warning that her husband, jailed and brutally lashed earlier this year for his blogging, had been moved to a new “isolated” prison, Prison Shabbat Central, where he had started a hunger strike. She wrote: “We take this opportunity to call on his Majesty King Salman to act on his promises and pardon my husband, end his and his family’s ordeal and unite him with his wife and children. 

And today, the government of Saudi Arabia continues to ignore the pleas of the Saudi friends, journalists and family of Ashraf Fayadh, a gentle young Palestinian poet and artist sentenced last month to death for trumped-up charges of alleged “apostasy.” 

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Today, a photo was posted on Twitter of Haroon Ajwad al-Fassi, a leading women’s right activist in Saudi Arabia and an assistant professor of women’s history at King Saud University, smiling as she emerged from voting, in a pre-modern day head covering, her reading glasses dangling over her black abaya. But, in her research, the scholar says that Saudi women in 21st century have fewer rights than women in the 6th century pre-Islamic region that is now modern day Saudi Arabia, saying that forced gender segregation is one of the “major obstacles” in women’s progress. That’s gender apartheid.

Because of Saudi Arabia’s state-sanctioned system of gender apartheid, we need to temper our enthusiasm, and instead support efforts, like the ones led by organizations, like, to challenge the unjust regime of Saudi Arabia and defend human rights.  For my part, after the deadly stampede at the hajj killed an estimated 2,411 pilgrims, I published a petition on for the world to boycott the government of Saudi Arabia and for Muslims to boycott the hajj. 

It’s “historic,” as CNN reported, but it is most certainly not “a significant step forward,” as a sub headline heralded.

The Wall Street Journal heralds the vote as a “turning point for kingdom,” while acknowledging that “few are expected to win a seat.” 

According to Saudi election officials, 979 women candidates ran for office, compared to 5,938 men candidates. That’s a ratio of about 6:1.

According to Saudi officials, 130,637 women voters registered to participate in the election, compared to about 1.3 million men. That is a ratio of 10:1. 

According to United Nations statistics, the country has a population of about 30 million, with about 17 million men and 13 million women. The numbers are skewed because the population figures include foreigners, such as the mostly male laborers who aren’t allowed to vote or run for office. There are an estimated seven million eligible male and female voters in the country. 

Until each woman is granted equal rights to men, any progress in Saudi Arabia must, indeed, be assigned “a tiny gold star." We must stand up with moral courage against Saudi Arabia’s system of gender apartheid and move this country’s leaders into the 21st century with equal rights for all.