Sunday’s announcement that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had granted Saudi women the right to vote and stand for office in municipal elections was big news around the world. At a glance, it certainly sounded like terrific news—what, after all, is a more direct emblem of the march of progress than the right to vote? But while the announcement may represent some very marginal progress, Saudi Arabia remains one of the worst places on earth to be a woman. Because the country’s ruling regime is, nominally at least, an American ally, the plight of Saudi women doesn’t receive nearly as much attention in Washington as it should. But it is truly one of the human rights catastrophes of our time.
Despite the king’s announcement, the women of Saudi Arabia remain second-class citizens. They are forbidden from driving, and the religious police—the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—oversees their public behavior, enforcing public segregation between the sexes. This means that employment opportunities for women are extremely limited. Women are considered legal minors, under the control of their closest male relative. In court, the testimony of one man is equal to that of two women. The World Economic Forum Gender and Development Index ranks Saudi Arabia 129 out of 134 countries.
Women will not be able to vote until 2015 (it seemed rather convenient that the king’s decree was issued on Sunday—too late to affect the elections that took place this week). Moreover, it is worth remembering that in Saudi Arabia, the “right to vote” is essentially a meaningless one, for both men and women. The municipal council elections in which women will be voting are not exactly exercises in true democracy. Council members have extremely limited powers (they cannot initiate new measures, for example) and half are appointed by the king.
At some level, it may seem unsavory to find fault in this news. This cause is clearly something about which Saudi women care deeply. Back in March, an online campaign to pressure the government to allow women to vote—a response, in part, to revolutions elsewhere in the Middle East—gained traction. And the king made his intentions sound so good. “We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society,” he said during the announcement, according to The New York Times.
Yet marginalizing women is what his regime does every day—which is why it is important that the world not celebrate too strongly what is little more than a minor gesture.
Correction: This article originally criticized King Abdullah for allowing a Saudi woman to be sentenced to receive ten lashes for driving. In fact, he had commuted the sentence before this article was published. We regret the error.