Saudi Women Can Vote But Still Not Drive

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah recently granted women the right to vote — but not until 2015. Only men can participate in Thursday's nationwide municipal elections. While some applaud the decree granting Saudi women voting rights, critics point out that women are still barred from many aspects of public life, including driving. Michel Martin talks with Ed Husain, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Caryle Murphy, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Murphy spent the last three years working in Saudi Arabia.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, if you are a fan of the fashion competition show "Project Runway," or you are among the lucky ones who managed to catch the spring shows in New York, then you might have seen the work of Korto Momolu. She is bringing her Sankofa collection to Washington, D.C. to the National Museum of African Art. We'll have more on that in a moment.

But first, more on women in politics in Saudi Arabia. Saudis take to the polls in nationwide municipal elections today. This is only the second municipal election there. The first was in 2005, but only men can vote.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah issued a landmark decree over the weekend changing that. He moved to allow Saudi women not only the right to vote, but also to run in elections. Here he is making the announcement to his advisory committee, the Shura Council.

King ABDULLAH: (Foreign Language Spoken)

MARTIN: Even though the change is not scheduled to go into effect until the year 2015, the announcement is being hailed in some corners as a major step forward for Saudi women's rights, but others question that.

Here to talk more about this are Ed Husain. He's a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Caryle Murphy. She's a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and she recently returned to the United States in July after spending three years in the Saudi Kingdom as a freelance journalist.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both for coming.

CARYLE MURPHY: Nice to be here.

ED HUSAIN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And I understand that there's actually a difference of opinion between you two on whether this is, in fact, a significant step. So Caryle, I'll start with you. Ladies first. I'll start with you. Is this a significant step?

MURPHY: Well, no one has ever said this before in Saudi Arabia, that women would have the same opportunities as men in the political arena. Now, these opportunities are limited. The Majlis-ash-Shura is only an advisory body and the king said he would appoint women to that in 18 months. And the municipal councils also have very limited powers.

Nevertheless, it's never been said before by a king in Saudi Arabia that women could have the same opportunities to participate in these as men.

MARTIN: Ed Husain, you taught in Saudi Arabia in 2005, which is actually the same year that King Abdullah became the ruler of the Saudi monarchy, but you actually say not so much.

HUSAIN: Well, people have had hope in this king for a long time now. Back in 1999, he promised full rights for women. A decade on, we're still waiting. In 2002, he introduced ID cards, which allowed for women to basically show their face on a document without having to cover their faces. And in 2005, he promised the same thing previously, that women would participate in elections.

The participation was based - and this election that's taking place today in Saudi Arabia - there are municipal elections taking place today - were delayed in order for women to participate.

So we've had this track record of broken promises and the point I'm trying to make is there's a Saudi culture of making promises, but not necessarily delivering on them and my worry is, just by saying that women can participate in these elections in five years' time, without allowing for women to drive, without allowing for women to show their faces without a veil in public, without having equal rights in relation to men now in terms of being able to work, this promise isn't really worth the paper it's written on.

MARTIN: You'll believe it when you see it.

HUSAIN: We've been waiting for this since 1962 when women were given the right to be educated in schools. And back then, the Saudi king at the time promised women would have equal rights and it's been, you know, 50-plus years and people are still waiting for it.

MARTIN: Caryle, what about the fact that, two days after King Abdullah announced this initiative, a Saudi court sentenced a woman to 10 lashes for driving, something that got a lot of attention in the Western media. The driving protest got a lot of attention. It appears that this lashing has been cancelled, although we don't really know the circumstances. So how do you interpret those events all occurring within the same sort of window?

MURPHY: The way I interpret it is this. Obviously, what the king said on Sunday is opposed by a lot of ultra-conservatives within the religious establishment and in the population. And I think that this judge in Jeddah who gave out this sentence on Tuesday was just telling the king how much he didn't like it and he gave this very harsh sentence. It's the harshest sentence we've seen yet against any one of the women who've been driving since June individually to protest the ban on women driving.

And this is really unprecedented in the kingdom, that we've had a long term protest like this, so I predicted yesterday, or Tuesday when the lashing verdict came out, that it would never be imposed because I thought the king would not let that happen. And indeed, the reports today are that he has cancelled that verdict.

MARTIN: And I'm interested in whether King Abdullah really has the authority to initiate this change. And what does this say about how governance is really - is actually really takes place in Saudi Arabia?

HUSAIN: That's a really good question, Michel. There's been a marriage of convenience between two factions in Saudi Arabia since the founding of the kingdom now for the last 82 years and that marriage is between the Saudi-Wahhabi clerics, hard liners, literalists, very rigid people, an effect that's really been founded in Saudi Arabia and not represented in most parts of the remaining Muslim world.

So there's this Wahhabi sect, very hard liners, I say, and then you have the House of Saud, which is essentially a nomad tribe from the Riyadh vicinity or Najd. Now, that marriage has served them well in the sense that Wahhabi clerics bestow the House of Saud with legitimacy and speak well of them on mass Friday prayers.

The leading clerics in this Wahhabi sect have opposed not just this most recent symbolic announcement, but every attempt by this king. And to be fair to him, he's tried and is making a certain noise, but have blocked him from implementing changes, not just vis-a-vis women, but also Shia minorities, foreign workers in the country, religious freedom.

Because women's rights comes within the package of greater human rights and that package has been repeatedly blocked by these hard line Saudi Wahhabi clerics who, incidentally, are the same people that produced al-Qaida type mindset, not just in the country, but within the broader region.

MARTIN: So you believe that there's, in fact, a struggle for power. And is it a struggle for, you know, hard power or is it also a struggle for soft power, for cultural authority, as well?

HUSAIN: It's the combination of the two. We're talking about clerics who have - immediately on Sunday, when the king made this announcement, they went about tweeting, of all things, against the announcement, saying it's harm for women to be voting and participating in public.

MARTIN: It's forbidden.

HUSAIN: Yeah, that's right. It's forbidden and sort of a religious (intelligible)

MARTIN: One does wonder, though, how women would run for office, given the restrictions on, you know, driving, showing their faces, speaking in public. There are some clerics, as I understand, who consider it inappropriate for women to speak in public because they feel that the woman's voice is too provocative to men. So how would they actually go about doing this?

MURPHY: Well, this is why what the king said on Sunday is going to open up a very interesting period in Saudi history because now, for the next four years, people are going to be debating in the press and in tweets and on Facebook how exactly this is going to work and how much power or freedom the women have to be campaigning just like men.

And I really think that the women are going to be pushing hard to have the same opportunities to run and campaign as men.

MARTIN: And Caryle, that is a question I wanted to ask you before we conclude. Is this as live an issue - as we mentioned, this is an issue that always attracts the attention of Americans. Many people in, you know, Western Europe who feel that this is outrageous and ridiculous that women are so constrained in Saudi Arabia. But is this as live a debate there as we are making it out to be?

MURPHY: It is a very live debate and I spoke to one woman this morning and she said, you know, this is a fabulous decision of the king because it empowers us. It gives us confidence to know that the king and the royal court wants us to participate in politics.

MARTIN: And Ed, final thought from you. Is there any role for the international community or outside entities in this? Any productive role? Because many people will say, you know, within the country, this is just simply not your business. This is an internal matter and there is no international role in this. What do you think?

HUSAIN: There are elements in the country who would say that. You're absolutely right. But let's not forget that Saudi Arabia is completely attached to the rest of the world by its strategic positioning, its international trade links, the numbers of students that come out abroad to study, the Hollywood movies and the American news channels that are beamed into the country.

And I think the kind of debates that we're having here in the West is absolutely vital to be supporting the women and ordinary humans who want to marginalize the fundamentalist clerics who continue to hold their country hostage.

MARTIN: Ed Husain is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Caryle Murphy is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She recently returned, as we said, to the U.S. in July after spending the last three years in Saudi Arabia as a freelance journalist.

I have a feeling we'll be speaking again about this. Thank you both so much for joining us.

HUSAIN: Thank you, Michel.

MURPHY: A pleasure.

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