Apart from the kingdom of Brunei where no one has the vote, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are banned from the polling booth.
Earlier this week, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz-al-Saud, in a surprisingly progressive move, announced a step towards universal suffrage for the ultra-conservative Muslim country.
“Because we refuse to marginalise women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided … to involve women in the Shura Council as members starting from next term,” he said.
The Majlis ash-Shura is the influential consultative council whose members are appointed by the king.
Women will also be allowed to stand and vote in municipal elections four years from now. The first municipal elections, in which half the seats were chosen by voters, were held in 2005.
Wajeha Al-Huwaider, the co-founder of the Association for the Protection and Defence of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia, and a pro-feminist activist, said it was “great news”. She told Reuters: “Women’s voices will finally be heard.”
The popular democracy movements spreading through the Middle East earlier this year did not blossom in Saudi Arabia. In May, when demonstrators in neighbouring countries took to the streets, the Saudi government responded by banning demonstrations and people largely stayed at home.
The question now is whether in 2015, when, for the first time, Saudi women will go to the polls, they will also be allowed to drive and live more independently without the direct control of a husband or male relative. In other countries suffrage has been the first step along the road of women’s emancipation leading to equality of opportunity and participation in the economy.
Just recently, King Abdullah is reported to have overturned a court ruling sentencing a woman to 10 lashes for driving a car in Jeddah earlier this year. All women, of any nationality, are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia and penalties can be severe.
The news was tweeted by Saudi princess Amira al-Taweel and has since been confirmed. There are a number of other women facing sentences for defying the ban, many inspired by the protest group, Women2Drive.