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September 17, 2005
Saudi Women To Vote, Hold Office

The Saudi kingdom has begun to offer elections at the local level in order to move towards moderation and limited democracy for the past several months. However, in a major shift for the highly repressive Wahhabist society, the monarchy has apparently demanded suffrage for women as well as men and will insist that women not only vote but become eligible as officers in an important trade organization:

Saudi women will be able to fully participate in an election for the first time in this ultraconservative Islamic kingdom, after the government ordered a local chamber of commerce to allow female voters and candidates.

The Jiddah Trade and Industry Chamber had rejected the nominations of 10 businesswomen to run for the chamber's governing board. Trade Minister Hashem bin Abdullah Yamani overruled this decision, a Saudi official said Friday. ...

The minister made his decision on Tuesday after receiving petitions from businesswomen asking to be allowed to run, the Saudi official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't permitted to speak to the media.

The minister ordered the election for the 18-member board to be postponed until Nov. 15 to give time for new candidates including women to come forward, the official said.

The same government that has repressed women for decades, who have decreed that women can only hold a job with the approval of a male guardian and are forbidden to drive, now wants women to vote and hold office in business organizations. This shift towards liberalization shows significant progress in the strategy of positive engagement with the Saudis, but probably the eruption of Islamofascist terrorism against the royal family has more to do with convincing them of the need for reform.

What does this small step for the liberation of women mean, exactly? It could mean that the royal family wants more women involved in business alone, as unemployment creates a problem for the Saudi government. Estimates of the rate go between 15-30%, which led the Saudis to restrict the number of foreign workers in the country a couple of years ago. Allowing women and their capital into the workplace, especially in small businesses, could help prompt more local employment as those businesses grow and women integrate better into the local markets.

However, it also sets an expectation of respect for women in the businessplace that will undoubtedly carry over into politics, especially since economics inextricably links to politics in any society. The internal politics of the trade organizations also spill over into public policy, and if women hold offices within these organizations, they will have to be allowed to engage in the public debates about the direction of the trade and its importance to the communities it serves.

The Saudis certainly know this; it's one of the reasons they didn't allow women to do this before. King Abdullah and the abd-el-Aziz clan must have some strategy to not only liberalize the kingdom but to provide some framework for equal rights. In the next round of municipal elections, do not find yourself surprised to hear that women not only vote but win offices in the local governments.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 17, 2005 8:22 AM

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