April 12, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 822

Saudi Arabia: Renewed Debate on Women's Suffrage

April 12, 2012 | By Y. Admon*
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 822


In a September 25, 2011 speech at the Saudi Shura Council, King 'Abdullah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz surprised his audience by announcing that, from 2013, women would be allowed to serve as members of this council, and that they would also be allowed to vote and to run in the next municipal elections (slated for 2015), in accordance with the laws of the shari'a.[1] It should be noted that women were barred from participating in the kingdom's first municipal elections, held in 2005, though the Municipal Elections Law, passed in August 2004, said nothing explicit on the issue of gender, which gave rise to an intense public debate prior to the elections.[2]

The second municipal elections, originally scheduled for 2009, were postponed to 2011,[3] on the grounds that the law must be amended so as to grant women the vote[4] (though a source in the Municipal Affairs Ministry denied that this was the reason for the postponement).[5]

In 2011, the year of the elections, the issue of women's participation resurfaced. On January 16, a group of Saudi women activists launched a Facebook campaign devoted to this issue, titled "Baladi."[6] However, a senior official in the Municipal Affairs Ministry said that the possibility of allowing women to vote had been considered but rejected for social reasons.[7] The minister of municipal affairs, Prince Mansour bin Muta'ib bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, said that the question of women's participation was being handled by a special committee.[8] Later, the Municipal Elections Commission chairman, 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Dahmash, said that women would be excluded due to a shortage of voting stations.[9] In June 2011, the Shura Council approved a proposal, originally submitted by Shura members Dr. 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-'Inad and Dr. Zuheir Al-Harthi, to grant women the right to vote in the municipal elections,[10] and called on the Municipal Affairs Ministry to make the necessary preparations, in accordance with the rules of the shari'a.[11] However, the elections eventually took place (in September 2011) without the participation of women. Voter turnout was very low.[12]

The king's September 25, 2011 proclamation rekindled the debate over the issue. Many senior officials, journalists, and women activists welcomed it, whereas clerics in the religious establishment voiced objections. On March 10, 2012, the Saudi daily Al-Watan reported that the Municipal Affairs Ministry had formulated conditions for women's participation in the municipal elections: women would be allowed to vote from the age of 30 (whereas men are allowed to vote from the age of 25), and women candidates, like the male candidates, would be required to possess an academic degree.[13]

This report will review the king's proclamation and some of the reactions to it.

King 'Abdallah: Women Will Be Appointed to the Shura Council, Participate in Municipal Elections

In his speech, the king explained that his decision had been motivated by his "objection to the marginalization of women in Saudi society, [and his desire to integrate them] in all domains of activity, according to the shari'a, after consulting with many ulema, including [members of] the Senior Clerics Council, who took a positive view of the matter."

The king added: "Throughout Muslim history, since the time of the Prophet, the Muslim woman has had valid opinions and [sound] advice that should not be regarded as marginal. Evidence for this is the advice of Umm Salama, [the Prophet's wife], regarding the Hudaibiyya [agreement],[14] and there are many [other] examples from the time of the [Prophet's] Companions and of the following generation, and to this very day. "[15]

Reactions to the King's Decree

The king's decree was positively received by many in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, including by key officials in the kingdom and by Saudi women's rights activists.

Saudi Officials in Praise of the Decision

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz said that the king's decision had not been motivated by foreign pressure, but was a personal decision meant to benefit the homeland and the citizens [by] including women in the development [of the country], in accordance with [King] 'Abdallah's belief in the importance of the woman's role.[16]

Saudi Justice Minister and Senior Clerics Council member Dr. Muhammad 'Abd Al-Karim Al-'Issa told the daily Al-Riyadh that that the king's declaration was a constitutional document anchored in the sources and principles of Islamic law. The decision, he said, was an important turning point in terms of integrating women in national frameworks, so as to benefit from their opinions and advice. He added that the Shura Council and municipal councils dealt with many issues pertaining to women, so women were entitled to have a say in these institutions, and their opinions should be considered, as recognized in the Saudi constitution. Echoing the king's statement, he said that, in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, men used to consult women.[17]

Shura Council Speaker Dr. 'Abdallah bin Muhammad Aal Al-Sheikh said that preparations were underway for incorporating women into the council as full-fledged members with an influential role, and that the details would be published at a later date. He noted that, today, there are 12 women counselors, who attend some of the council sessions and have a key role in deciding issues related to the family.[18]

Shura Council Political Committee Chairman Dr. Sadqa Fadel called the king's decision "excellent," and said that it was unsurprising, since women constitute half of society, and therefore their participation in the elections is a necessity. He added that the decision would give women influence over women's affairs in the country, which would be positive, because they know their needs better than anyone else."[19]

Dr. 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-'Inad, member of the Shura Council and of the Saudi National Human Rights Association (one of the Shura members who submitted the recommendation to permit women to vote in the municipal elections), said that the king's proclamation was a pleasant surprise, and reflected a correct understanding of the Arab reality and of the need to refresh the municipal councils by including women among the decision makers. He added that the king had made history by allowing women not only to vote in these elections but also to run in them. A statement issued by the National Human Rights Association said that the king's decision had underlined his resolve to increase the involvement of the Saudi woman in the life of society, in accordance with the shari'a. [20]

Reactions from Women Activists

Praise for the king's proclamation was also voiced by women activists on internet social networks. The activists thanked him for it, and one even called on Saudi women to hold a march of gratitude in the king's honor.[21] Saudi liberal Samar Al-Muqrin expressed surprise at the decision, but added that it was natural, since the king supported women.[22]

Saudi businesswomen said that the king's proclamation was "another celebration" for them, after the Saudi National Day (celebrated on September 23), and that the Saudi woman would be able to consolidate her presence in the municipal councils and other executive positions. 'Aisha Natto, member of the Jeddah Trade and Industry Bureau, told the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "These decisions do not surprise us at all. Most of us expected them, because we believe in our father, King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, who has focused, and continues to focus, on women's [issues]. We were certain that [the inclusion of women] in the municipal councils was only a matter of time."[23]

Elfat Muhammad Kabani, a member of the Jeddah Trade and Industry Bureau, called the king's decision "historical" and "a wonderful gift for the Saudi woman on the kingdom's National Day." She added that the decision would "contribute to the real and active participation [of women], and would give [women, who constitute] over half of society, the right to [participate in] decision making."[24]

On the other hand, women's rights activist Wajeha Al-Huweidar said in an interview with the French magazine Nouvel Observateur: "I applauded when I first heard the report, but after studying it closely, I was disappointed... [The king] is deluding himself. This is [just] another nominal step, like those taken in the past. How can the right to vote be granted to [citizens]... who are not [even] allowed to drive or to travel [without a male chaperone]?" Al-Huweidar also pointed to the fact that the decision would only come into effect in 2013, and asked: "What guarantee do we have that the king will not change his mind in the meantime?"[25]

Opposition to the Decision from the Religious Establishment

King 'Abdallah's announcement, like some of his previous reforms, met with reservations from several of the country's senior clerics. Though the king claimed in his speech that the decision was supported by members of the Senior Clerics Council, as well as by other clerics, it was not accompanied by an official fatwa indicating the shari'a justifications for it.

Among the clerics who criticized the decision was Senior Clerics Council member Saleh Al-Luhaidan. In an interview on the Saudi channel Al-Majd TV, he said that the king's decree had taken him by surprise. "It would have been preferable if [King 'Abdallah] had not claimed to have consulted some or [all] of the members of the Senior Clerics Council," he said, and added that the King should have presented the decision as reflecting his own personal opinion.[26]

After Al-Luhaidan's remarks caused a furor, Justice Minister and Senior Clerics Council member Muhammad Al-'Issa explained that the king had indeed consulted the council, and that most of its members, as well as other senior clerics, welcomed and supported the king's initiative. Al-'Issa also mentioned historical precedents, for instance that the Prophet Muhammad used to consult with his wives Umm Salama and Khadija. He also noted that women have been serving as advisors in the Shura Council for quite some time, so the only innovation in the king's decision is that women would now become full members.[27]

Criticism of the king's decision was also voiced by Sheikh Dr. Muhammad Al-Habadan, a Riyadh mosque preacher, who campaigned against it on Facebook and Twitter. He wrote on his Facebook page: "It is the opinion of the clerics that women are prohibited from serving on the Shura Council," and cited a hadith that says: "A nation that makes a woman its ruler will never succeed." He went on to claim that "the joy of the West over the decision proves that it is not to the benefit of [Saudi] society." He also quoted former Saudi mufti Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz ibn Baz as saying that women could not hold positions such as president, judge, or other senior roles.[28] Several days later, Al-Hadaban announced on his Facebook page that a senior official had banned him from discussing public issues.[29]

The Islamic website Nour Al-Islam, which is associated with senior Saudi sheikh 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barrak, republished an old fatwa by Saudi Mufti 'Abd Al-'Aziz bin 'Abdallah Aal Al-Sheikh, according to which women may not serve on the Shura Council. The fatwa reads: "We must all stand together against the plans of the enemies. The issue is far greater than the matter of women's participation in the Shura Council, or [gender] equality... It has to do with the aspiration to destroy the [Islamic] religion in its [very] stronghold – this pure country [of Saudi Arabia]." The Mufti called on women "to be conscious of the reality, to know the burden of responsibility placed upon them, and not to open the gates of evil before the Muslims."[30]

Sheikh Al-Barrak himself issued a fatwa on Nour Al-Islam banning women from participating in the elections or serving as members of the Shura Council, on the grounds that this is an act of emulating the infidels, and that elections are based on propaganda, vote contracting, and lies.[31]

A contrary opinion was voiced by Senior Clerics Council member Sheikh 'Abdallah Al-Muni', who said: "It is permissible for a woman to serve in the Shura Council, [as long as it is] in accordance with the shari'a laws prohibiting gender-mixing. That is, [men and women in the Shura Council] must sit [separately]... We agree that there is no shame in a woman's vote, that woman is man's sister from the womb and from birth, and that Allah granted her [the ability] to think [and have] opinions." Al-Muni' even said that there was nothing preventing a woman from being a member of the Senior Clerics Council.[32]

Liberals Condemn the Decision as Insufficient, "Cosmetic"

Saudi Columnist in Al-Hayat: Saudi Law Must Be Separated from Tradition

In an article in the London-based daily Al-Hayat, Saudi columnist Khalid Al-Dakhil wrote that the king's decision acknowledged the importance of the woman's role, as well as the changes that Saudi society had undergone over the past half century, and was a first step toward women's liberation from traditional restrictions. However, he argued that the decision was insufficient, and that a broader decision was needed in order to separate the state laws from traditional norms. Following are excerpts from the article:

"The king said in his speech: 'Everyone knows that, throughout history, Muslim women have held opinions that cannot be regarded as marginal...' These statements attest to the discrepancy between the decision's content and the conventions [of Saudi society]... The day after the king's speech, a court in Jeddah sentenced a Saudi woman to flogging [just] for driving her car a few times. The sentence was not carried out, on orders from the king, but it reflects the conflict [that exists] between the country's legal infrastructure and the moral infrastructure of [its] society...

"The problem in Saudi Arabia is that religious tradition competes with [state] law, and sometimes even restricts it. This situation must be dealt with and a gradual solution found. The royal decree alone is insufficient; what is needed is a 'legislative package' that will alter [the status of] women and their role in society, in the spirit of the [king's] decision. For example, a [Saudi] woman is still forced to cover her face, even though there is no law obligating her to do so, and though the shari'a permits gender-mixing... [Moreover,] a ban on gender-mixing in the Shura Council means that women's membership in it will be partial... A woman still needs a mahram [male chaperone] when traveling... and is still not permitted to drive...

"All these [facts] and others are not in line with the king's decision... They demonstrate the need to separate traditional values from the law, giving precedence to the law – whether state [law] or [law] based on clear and binding proofs in the shari'a... because the law is the spirit of the country, and the foundation of its strength and legality."[33]

Saudi Intellectual: The Decision Is a Media Stunt Meant to Improve the Kingdom's Image in the World

Dr. Madawi Al-Rasheed, a Cambridge University professor known for her criticism of the Saudi regime, condemned the move on the grounds that it was "cosmetic" and a mere media stunt. In an article published in the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, she argued that having some women in senior positions did not empower women in general, but only made women a part of the oppressive regime. She added that the regime was "using a small number of women to improve its black reputation in the Western, Arab and Muslim world," a move which allowed it "to gain a lot in return for very little." She criticized the international community for being satisfied with this step, which merely granted women "a few more seats in the toothless [Shura] Council, or a few votes in the backward municipalities..."

Rasheed said further that, by taking some steps in the women's direction, the regime meant to enlist their support in its struggle against the opposition, especially the Islamist opposition, which does not support women's rights. In addition, she argued that the clerics' opposition to issues like gender mixing and women drivers served as a substitute for real political opposition on their part.[34]

Liberal Columnist: They Want the Women Shura Members to Be Confined to a Separate Floor

In an article sarcastically titled "Wanted: Chaperone for People's Representative," liberal columnist Khalaf Al-Harbin condemned those who responded to the king's announcement by assuring the public that the woman Shura members would not mix with the male members. He said that, under these circumstances, the women's presence would be meaningless:

"Though I support any move that grants the women of my country some of their missing rights, I disapprove of some of the statements that were made following the [king's] announcement that women would be appointed to the Shura Council. [What I find objectionable is that] these statements did not focus on the roles the women would be able to play in the Shura Council, but rather on planning separate entrances for them and [letting them participate in sessions only] by broadcasting their comments [from another room] – so that they would not mix or rub against the male Shura Council members... [Some officials even suggested] that women be confined to one floor and men to another. [These ideas] violated the principle of women's equality before the women even entered [the council] in the first place...

"[Under these circumstance], a female [Shura member] will be denied the freedom of movement available to women doctors or nurses in Saudi Arabia. She will have greater freedom of movement in the market, on a plane, or at a public conference than in the Shura Council [itself]. This, even though her role requires her to hear citizens' complaints and be in contact with all sectors of society... These confused initial reactions disregard the fact that we are talking about an important political institution whose sessions are broadcast on TV...

Woman Shura Council members must represent all sectors of society. They do not need a guardian. On the contrary – it is they who must guard us... If most people in our society always [resort] to the superficial question of 'would you want your wife driving a car?', then I will resort to the same common style, and ask our officials: Do you want the people's female representatives hiding on a separate floor?..."

Woman Writer on Saudi Website: "We Do Not Want to Decide Our Own Fate"

An article on the Islamist website Nour Al-Islam, by a woman called Mashail Al-'Issa, stated that the shari'a allows to consult women on various matters, but bans them from holding public office, because they are weak and emotional:

"Women never took decisions about their own affairs in Islam. [The Second Caliph], 'Omar [bin Al-Khattab], used to convene the people of Badr for consultations... Each of the [participants] had a wife, mother or sister, whom he would consult on matters pertaining to women, and [after hearing her advice] he would explain the matter to the [other] men. 'Omar bin Al-Khattab [himself] used to consider the opinion of his daughter, Hafsa... So why did 'Omar bin Al-Khattab not appoint his daughter... to the Islamic Shura council, even though he often consulted her on matters pertaining to women?...

"According to the Islamic shari'a, a woman cannot be guardian – neither of a child, nor of a brother, nor even of her own person in the [institution] of marriage. Nor is she allowed to take decisions regarding her household, for Allah has granted this authority to the man... Is it conceivable that the shari'a would ban a women from taking decisions regarding her own affairs and the affairs of her household, yet allow her to decide on matters [concerning all] the Muslims and the entire state?

"It's amazing that there are some who call themselves men, [yet] call to appoint women [to handle] public affairs in [this] country. These men do not realize that this [position] undermines their masculinity... Even if the men agree to this, we women object to having women in charge of our affairs. We are all aware that women are weak and have an unstable temperament, due to hormonal imbalances and their having a short memory. Should we place our fate in the hands of these weak, emotional [creatures], who are just as weak as we are? Should we place our weakness in the hands of the weak? No, we do not want to decide our own fate, [that is the job] of the men, for they are more perfect and smarter than we are. As for women, there is nothing wrong with consulting them... but a woman must not hold public office..."[35]


* Y. Admon is a research fellow at MEMRI.



[1] The Saudi Shura Council is an appointed body; in the municipal councils, half the members are appointed and half are elected.

[2] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 206, "A Saudi Public Debate on Women's Participation in the Municipal Elections," February 11, 2005, A Saudi Public Debate on Women's Participation in the Municipal Elections.

[3] The elections were first postponed to April 2011 and later to September of that year.

[4] , May 18, 2009.

[5] Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), May 23, 2009.

[7], March 12, 2011.

[8] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 10, 2011.

[9] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 29, 2011.

[10], June 17, 2011;, June 6, 2011.

[11] Sabaq (Saudi Arabia), June 6, 2011.

[12], September 28, 2011.

[13] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 10, 2012.

[14] Umm Salama advised the Prophet to accept the terms if this agreement with the Quraish tribe of Mecca.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 26, 2011.

[16], September 26, 2012.

[17] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), October 1, 2011.

[18] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), September 27, 2011.

[19] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 26, 2011.

[20] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 26, 2011.

[21], September 27, 2011.

[22], September 29, 2011.

[23] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 26, 2011.

[24] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 26, 2011.

[25] Nouvell Observateur (France), September 26, 2011.

[26], October 2, 20122;

[27] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), October 1, 2011.

[30], September 26, 2011.

[31], October 6, 2011. It should be noted that in May 2011, Al-Barrak called to stop the Facebook campaign "I Will Drive My Own Car" promoting Saudi women's right to drive, and said that the women demanding this right deserved to die. Sabaq (Saudi Arabia), May 24, 2011;, May 23, 2011.

[32] Al-Hayat (Saudi Arabia), October 1, 2011.

[33] Al-Hayat (London), October 2, 2011.

[34] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 3, 2011.

[35], October 2, 2011.

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