For the past two years, sweeping political changes in parts of the Middle East have had a profound impact on socio-cultural and legal traditions. Arab women have been at the forefront of this change, exercising their rights as political citizens and raising their voices against injustices within their own countries and in support of others across the region. Recent developments, however, suggest that while the Gulf states (excluding Bahrain) have remained largely untouched by revolutionary antics, Saudi Arabia appears to have supported credible changes at the policy level which might suggest a softening of attitudes towards women’s role in society. This sudden shift towards affecting democratic change appears to also have spurred increased activism (and civil society engagement) with regards to women’s rights in this conservative country.
One of the most crucial changes to take place is the announcement in 2011 by King Abdullah that women will finally be allowed to vote and run as candidates in municipal elections to be held in 2015. In a country where women navigate public space through an intense system of guardianship founded on a restrictive social code of separation of sexes, this policy announcement is an important step towards political and economic empowerment of women. This announcement occurred several days before the all-male 2011 municipal elections were to take place in the country. Further, potentially spurring this announcement was the “Baladi” campaign, launched in response to women being banned women from voting in the 2011 elections, allegedly on account of lack of institutional preparedness by the government. Independent national ID cards will also be issued to women on the basis of a phased plan, within a seven-year period. This, however, raises an obvious question: how are women expected to “independently” register to vote or stand as candidates in the upcoming municipal elections without the above-mentioned ID cards? [Read more...]