Friday, September 30, 2011

Saudi Women Can Now Vote. But Their Plight Remains a Human Rights Calamity

New Republic
September 30, 2011

Sunday’s announcement that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had granted Saudi women the right to vote and stand for office in municipal elections was big news around the world. At a glance, it certainly sounded like terrific news—what, after all, is a more direct emblem of the march of progress than the right to vote? But while the announcement may represent some very marginal progress, Saudi Arabia remains one of the worst places on earth to be a woman. Because the country’s ruling regime is, nominally at least, an American ally, the plight of Saudi women doesn’t receive nearly as much attention in Washington as it should. But it is truly one of the human rights catastrophes of our time.

Despite the king’s announcement, the women of Saudi Arabia remain second-class citizens. They are forbidden from driving, and the religious police—the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—oversees their public behavior, enforcing public segregation between the sexes. This means that employment opportunities for women are extremely limited. Women are considered legal minors, under the control of their closest male relative. In court, the testimony of one man is equal to that of two women. The World Economic Forum Gender and Development Index ranks Saudi Arabia 129 out of 134 countries.