Women in Saudi Arabia now have the right to vote, but not to drive?

On September 25, 2011, King Abdullah announced to Shura Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia that women would finally be able to vote in the municipal elections in 2015. Additionally, these women were given the right to run for office in those municipal elections and “to be appointed as full voting members of the Majlis Al-Shura, a government advisory group.” But, how can this country grant women a right to vote and to run for office but not to drive a car?

While US women drive their car to work, Saudi women are prohibited from driving regardless of where they are headed. Although this ban is not legal in nature, it is a socially enforced law, which stems from Muslim tradition and religion. Deeply rooted in this tradition is the belief that granting women freedom will inevitably lead to their vulnerability to sin. Therefore, policemen pull over women who are driving a car to question them and force them to sign a pledge to not drive again. While the courts have not passed down an official enforcement of this social enforced law, recently upon the release of the news that women have gained a right to vote, the court sentenced a woman to 10 lashes for driving. Yet, King Abdullah overturned this punishment.

Not only are women not “allowed” to drive, but also they must wear a burka. As mentioned in an earlier post, Muslim women were banned in France from wearing their burka while women in Saudi Arabia must do the exact opposite. Additionally, Saudi women are required to have a male guardian with them. Further, women are prevented from working, owning property or opening a bank account without permission from their husband or father. Women cannot even play sports in public. In fact, Saudi Arabia remains one of three counties that has not sent women to the Olympics.

Will women having the ability to run for office and vote change this profound tradition that women remain in the shadow of their men? How can a woman implement any changes in this tradition when a woman still needs the approval of a male family member to exercise their right to stand and vote in the 2015 municipal elections? Will men place a check on these rights by prohibiting their wife or daughter to run for office or vote?






  1. Now that Saudi women can vote it will be interesting to see how some of Saudi Arabia’s oppressive laws might slowly change. Of course, if the men do not want things to change, they will still be able to stop women from voting in different ways. It is one thing to say “women you can now vote” it is another to actually allow them to do so. The article and Christina bring up a good point, if the women of Saudi Arabia can not leave their homes with out the escort of a man or drive a car for that matter, how are they suppose to actually get out there to vote? If Saudi Arabia is truly looking to be less oppressive to women changes will come about rather quickly, especially if women can get appointed to positions on the Shura Council, the 150-member formal advisory body of Saudi Arabia that proposes laws to the king. The real problem is that in Saudi culture women are to rely on men for everything. What are the chances that women will be elected to any real positions anytime soon to make an impact?

    Women in the United States were allowed to vote in 1920, with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provided: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Today, only six states have a female governor, women hold only 17% of the seats in Congress, that is 90 seats out of 535, and there are only seventeen women in the Senate. Women in the U.S. did gain major steps in equality rather quickly, despite the slow growth in elected positions, however it might not be a reliable indication on how Saudi Arabia will respond. Saudi Arabia’s oppression of women seems deeply rooted in their religious beliefs which makes it extremely hard to overcome. Women in Saudi Arabia might need to change deeply rooted religious and cultural beliefs in order to be considered for any elected positions. I think it will be a long time before we see any Saudi women elected to a position of power. I really hope they prove me wrong.

  2. I think we must wait and see if women are actually granted this right when 2015 rolls around. There are still four years until that right is granted and many things can happen between now and then, especially considering the fact that it is still illegal for women to drive. Even if women are granted this power it seems as though they will still be under the control of the men in the country. The women will still need approval of a male family member to exercise the right and may also need a male to drive them to the voting site. It is hard to understand how a woman may be voted into office, but would not even be able to transport herself to work. Regardless, any step furthering womens rights is great for Saudi Arabia and will do nothing but further women in their quest for freedom and equality. Like I said before, there are four years left until this right is granted and maybe that means that women will be granted other rights before then. If the King is allowing women a right to vote in the future who knows what else he may be considering today.

  3. Unfortunately for the women of Saudi Arabia it seems highly unlikely that they will gain any of the freedoms that women in this country take for granted. Sharia Law is still alive and well in Saudi Arabia and short of an Arab Springesque uprising there won’t be change anytime soon.

    Any attempt at a popular uprising, especially one that advocates for women’s rights, is likely to be suppressed by King Abdullah’s imposing bank account. The King often uses money as a way of quelling dissent in his kingdom. A Bloomberg News report recently stated that the King is spending $43 billion on his poorer citizens and religious institutions. All of this comes on the heels of a cleric backed ban on protests in Saudi Arabia.

    With so much of the odds stacked against them it seems that the women of Saudi Arabia will continue to suffer the indignity of oppression in silence and at home.

  4. While I do think that respect for other religious beliefs is important, I am disappoint that Saudi Arabia would still have such an archaic law (even though it is not legal in nature). How will it be possible for a woman who is elected to public office to serve if she is unable to drive and if she is required to have a male companion with her at all times? It seems unlikely that a woman would be able to both fulfill her role as a public official and comply with these rules. However, perhaps if a woman is elected she can begin the process of ridding Saudi Arabia of these rules so that the next generation of women have more freedom.

  5. Practically speaking, giving women the ability to vote in Saudi Arabia gives them less rights than allowing them to drive a car. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy. The power to vote will not help to induce any real change in Saudi Arabian politics. The king and his numerous princes are not going anywhere. Giving women the right to drive and engage in activities such as owning property and participating in sports would be a much more profound change. These are activities that every law abiding person should be able to engage in. It is one thing if a women chooses of her own free will to follow the current policies of the Saudi government for religious reasons. It is quite another thing if women are forced by the government to not engage in these activities.
    There is no separation of church and state in Saudi Arabia and I think that is why I have a hard time with the Saudi government’s policies. I believe in leaving religion up to individual choice without government interference. Other nations do not. I am not saying they should or that they need to. Saudi Arabia’s policies are what they are, and are not likely to change any time soon.

  6. On the surface, giving women the right to vote seems like a victory and potentially a shift in the direction of customs and practices. However, digging a little deeper, it can be construed as a rather small victory or perhaps just an affirmance of those rights still lacking for women in Saudi Arabia. There are apparent restrictions on women, such as the inability to drive and the male-escort requirement, that essentially cancel out the progress made through enfranchisement.

    Like Louis states above, there is no separation of church and state in Saudi Arabia – political decisions are necessarily influenced by religion. This state of government poses significant problems for women living in traditional households, as men will most likely restrain the women to leave the house on “Election Day.” Unfortunately for now, the hype around women getting the vote seems to be all for naught. Yet, actions speak louder than words. To be continued until 2015…

  7. I agree with Gianna that we must wait and see if women are actually able to vote in the 2015 municipal elections. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy but the King is the one giving the women the right to vote in these elections. This move will no doubt be scrutinized with skepticism, but the move is at least a step in the right direction. Saudi Arabian policy is strongly motivated by its extreme religious views, especially in regards to women. Giving women equal rights in this country cannot be accomplished overnight without severe backlash. In a country with such extreme views towards women, a change in these views will most likely be gradual. That is of course, if any real change will come of this right to vote. If the nation is truly shifting towards giving women greater freedom and rights, the rest of the world must be attentive and patient with Saudi Arabia. As pointed out in the post, there will be incongruent policies as women are given such rights, but too radical of an approach could lead to a dangerous backlash against the Saudi Arabian women.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *