"Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.” - President John Quincy Adams.
This past week, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia held municipal elections. Given that the Kingdom is known for it's position as one of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world, this development is somewhat remarkable. Even more remarkable was the participation for the first time of women in the political process. In all, nearly twenty women were elected to local positions in municipal government throughout the country. Saudi Arabia is well-known for it's lack of women's rights (and basic representational government for that matter). So are these elections a turning point for women in Saudi Arabia, or just a sham to make the Kingdom look good?
Since it's founding in 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been ruled by an absolute monarchy controlled by the Saudi royal family. The royal family contains around seven thousand people, many of whom are appointed to key government positions by the King (currently King Salman). Citizens are sometimes allowed to petition the King on Saudi policy, but for the most part citizens have no real say in their government, human rights practices, or domestic and foreign policy. From a Western perspective, this type of absolute control seems unsustainable. After all, why would people support a government they can't change? The answer lies in Saudi Arabia's vast petroleum wealth. The country is able to provide the means of employment and success for nearly all of its citizens, so they often see few reasons to upset the status quo unless their quality of life decreases.
So the recent elections have now included women in the political process. This is a (small) step towards improving women's rights, but there are still vast differences and inequalities. For instance, women cannot drive and usually need a male escort to go out in public. Saudi society typically relegates a woman's role to maintaining the household and refraining from public life. What drives this extreme conservatism? Saudi Arabia adheres to an extremely strict form of Islam known as Wahhabism. Named after its founder Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, this interpretation takes an extremely literal interpretation of the original texts of the Qu'ran and the examples of the prophet Muhammad. While most other interpretations of Islam also highly regard these sources, most of them attempt to view their messages within the context of the time they were written. Since these sources are over 1,500 years old, literal interpretations can seem very out of date in a modern context. The Saudi family formed a strong alliance with al-Wahhab in the 1700s, and this partnership has lasted ever since.
However most other Arab and Muslim countries are not nearly as strict. Some have nearly equal rights for women and have more representational systems of government. They have also adopted much milder interpretations of Islam (and some are completely secular). It is important to rememberthat Islam originally gave women far more rights then they had enjoyed in the centuries before Muhammad. The first Muslim community actively worked toward a more equal system (though there were still massive differences by modern standards). It was generally assumed that men served public roles while women served in private life, but equal importance was to be given to each role. Unfortunately, some interpretations seem to have lost sight of this original breakthrough in women's rights.
Still, the situation of women is gradually improving in the Kingdom. Women are increasingly finding roles in professional careers and attending schools at an unprecedented level. In Saudi society, women's rights are just one section of a much larger change in traditional society which challenges the well-established political/religious order. There is also increased scrutiny on Saudi Arabia's flagrant human rights violations and its policy toward migrant workers. Plenty of Saudis would like to see more rapid change, but since the government provides nearly all of the keys to success in the country, many often don't see much of a need for (or way to create) changes such as widespread representational government (why change what seems to be working for most people?).
In all, this is a modest (though very positive) development for women's rights in the Kingdom. Though a completely representational government for all citizens (both men and women) would seem ideal from a Western perspective, it would be disingenuous to assume that all countries should adopt our form of democracy (after all, look what that thinking created in Iraq). Still, there are standards of equality of fair treatment which ought to transcend political ideologies. A socially,economically, and politically active female workforce is a positive development for the Kingdom's continued growth. It may be a small step, but to many women in Saudi Arabia, it could become a key turning point.
TL;DR: Women now have about as much political influence as men in Saudi Arabia. Which isn't that much to begin with.