Electoral reform is always a slow and painful process, especially where gender equality is concerned. In Britain we began by giving the over 30s the vote in 1918, with the Representation of the People Act, even though parliament had first been presented with a Women’s Suffrage bill in 1832. Yes, nearly 100 years to achieve the vote for any females, except for the highly progressive Isle of Man, where women have been voting since 1881. If anyone can explain to me why the Isle of Man is a hotbed of feminist action, I’d love to know, but I’m genuinely pleased that its inhabitants got in on the act so early. As for the Saudi Arabians, it’s just been announced that women should be able to head to the ballot boxes by 2015, which the King is lauding as a major step forward for his people, yet he is still restricting the Saudi ladies from countless commonplace activities that the Western world takes for granted.
Saudi Arabia’s Restrictions/Pitfalls for Females
- Segregated universities
- Public separation of the sexes
- No casting of ballots (until this Thursday)
- Cannot be candidates for election
- Must be accompanied by a male member of the family on trips outside the home
- Cannot drive a car, unless veiled and accompanied by a male
- Married women need their husband’s permission to leave the country, whilst those unmarried must seek the permission of a male guardian
- Women caught socialising with a non-related male can be charged with prostitution
In light of these points, it feels a little tame to be celebrating this electoral shift with much gusto. After all, living in a society where you are dependent on the constant presence of a man (to ensure you don’t get called a whore or, even worse, a bad driver) must be very intense and pressurised. There is also a great danger of stifling female values and thoughts when you are part of a society that places one gender’s worth above that of the other. By suggesting that women are sexual deviants or idiots without a man to guide them, Saudi Arabia is not offering a particularly positive portrait of itself, and I would hate to see such a rich and varied culture being left in the past due to its archaic gender rules. I know you can’t change traditional views overnight, but it is mad to think that women in the 21st century can be so downtrodden and we can all stand by and accept it. It will be an uphill struggle to change Saudi’s attitude, but hopefully this electoral reform is the first in a long line of female-friendly policies, and the only time we’ll see male chaperones will be on Downton Abbey.