King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has announced that women will have the right to vote in the next Saudi elections. Pardon me if I am underwhelmed. Women will be able to vote in Saudi Arabia, but presumably they will have to walk to the polls, since they still aren’t allowed to drive. And once they get there, with blistered feet from the long walk and suffering from heatstroke from having to walk while fully veiled under the desert sun, they will face a choice of candidates that is about as broad and diverse as a choice between Charles Rangel or Cynthia McKinney.
Offering Saudi women the right to vote in a country that doesn’t offer its citizens even the semblance of any real choice in the voting is a hollow victory at best. How excited would you have been if you had heard that some previously disenfranchised group had finally been awarded the right to vote in Stalin’s Russia?
Nevertheless, some of the perennially starry-eyed may think that King Abdullah, in announcing this great breakthrough on Sunday, was paving the way for further advances in Saudi women’s rights. The reaction from Washington was predictably fatuous: National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said that the move recognized the “significant contributions” women have made in Saudi Arabia, and will give them a share in making “the decisions that affect their lives and communities.”
Who knows? Maybe King Abdullah’s generous decree is a harbinger of more good things to come for Saudi women, who have made so many “significant contributions” to Saudi society, by having many Saudi babies, and cooking many Saudi meals, and cleaning many Saudi floors. Maybe this is just the beginning. Maybe in another year, the Saudis will let women leave the house without being chaperoned by a male guardian.
Maybe in two years the testimony of Saudi women will no longer be valued as only half that of a man. Maybe in three years women will be able to inherit a share equal to that of men if the person writing the will so desires. Maybe in four years women will be able to have some recourse when they are beaten. Maybe in five they’ll be able to protest when they’re used as commodities in business deals, given in arranged marriages the way others trade horses or cows. Maybe in six they’ll be able to speak out against the dehumanization of polygamy, and in seven years, who knows? Maybe pre-pubescent girls will be able to reject being married off to men decades older than they are.
But these further advances are, in fact, unlikely. For unlike the restriction on voting, these other limitations on the lives of women in the Kingdom of the Two Holy Places are rooted directly in Islamic law, and thus are not likely to be revised or discarded by a regime that is not only explicitly and self-consciously based upon Islamic law, but is beset by hardliners who believe that it is nonetheless still not Islamic enough. Al-Qaeda and other Islamic jihadists deride the Saudi royals as hypocrites already; imagine their fury if those royals started letting Saudi women be loosed, even just the tiniest bit, from their gilded shackles.
Hatoon al-Fassi, a history professor and suffragette in Saudi Arabia, observes that “the fact that the issue of women has turned Saudi Arabia into an international joke is another thing that brought the decision now.” That is undeniably true, but Saudi Arabia is and will remain not just an international blot, but an international rebuke. Saudi Arabia, in its day-to-day existence, constitutes a rebuke to the pretensions of the United Nations to care anything about human rights at all. In his speech to the UN on Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated that “it’s here year after year that Israel is unjustly singled out for condemnation. It’s singled out for condemnation more often than all the nations of the world combined. Twenty-one out of the 27 General Assembly resolutions condemn Israel — the one true democracy in the Middle East. Well, this is an unfortunate part of the U.N. institution. It’s the — the theater of the absurd.”
Indeed it is, and not solely because of its ongoing demonization of Israel and submission to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Islamic supremacist propaganda campaign, although that is certainly an enduring blot on its record. The UN is also the theater of the absurd because it directs no condemnation of any kind to Saudi Arabia for its institutionalized discrimination against women, and indeed, never says a single, solitary word about how Islamic law makes life for women subject to oppression that would be excoriated as intolerable were it perpetrated in any context other than an Islamic one.
And life for women in Saudi Arabia will continue to be intolerable even if they have the right to vote in the utterly meaningless Saudi elections. Hatoon al-Fassi and other women like her deserve the respect of every free person for trying to improve a difficult situation, but they have a very, very long way to go and their prospects for success are quite dim. Sunday, King Abdullah raised their hopes in a way he is unlikely to do again as long as Islamic law continues to hold sway in his kingdom. At this point, the international human rights community should not be congratulating or thanking him, but raining down condemnations upon his head.