Saturday, October 08, 2011

Saudi Women’s New Right to Vote May Be Sign of Better Representation to Come


King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced on September 25 that women will be eligible to vote and hold office in municipal elections starting in 2015. King Abdullah also announced that women will be appointed to the Majlis Al-Shura, an advisory council for the monarchy. This decree is the first major development for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, an ultra-conservative country, in almost a decade.

Though allowing women to sit on the advisory council and in municipal governments seems to be a significant development in Saudi Arabian culture, the change will largely be symbolic. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, meaning that the municipal board’s and advisory council’s power is limited to their ability to persuade the monarchy to act in a certain manner. Even if newly-elected women push for reform, King Abdullah can ignore them if he chooses, which severely limits the women’s power to push for more reform.

Even if women do not attain any real political power, the declaration may still be a catalyst for more social change. Saudi women currently have few rights, and the difference between the rights of Saudi men and women is one of the largest in the world. Saudi women’s rights activists have been pushing for equality and are optimistic that this declaration will open the door for reform of more important social issues. Some observers believe the king’s declaration is insubstantial and meant only to silence civil unrest, but others believe it shows he is willing to listen to the needs and wants of Saudis.

If the right to vote is just the first of many expanded rights for women, it could lead to a dramatic change in economic output. Women currently occupy only a small minority of the workforce in Saudi Arabia. If the king were to change other laws to make it easier for women to work, women would be able to contribute to Saudi Arabia’s economy both by increasing productivity and as new consumers. Allowing women in the workplace should also increase competition for jobs, which would theoretically increase workplace productivity by making it more likely that employers will find better workers in the larger applicant pool. In sum, expanding women’s rights is good not only for creating a more equal society but for also improving the entire country’s economy, which is good for all Saudis.

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