[Essay] Enfranchisement and Equality: Feminism, Politics and Religion in the Middle East — Tim Harvey

For the first time in its history, Saudi Arabia has allowed women to both vote and stand in its municipal elections. This is only the third election of its kind in the country, the first of which was held in 2005, in which only men over the age of 21 could vote for half of the councils’ seats, with the other half being appointed by the royal house. 2015’s elections saw both men and women, aged 18 and above, allowed to elect 2,100 candidates for 284 local councils, accounting for two thirds of the total seats in the country. The event was described as “momentous” for women’s rights in the country by al-Jazeera’s Jamal Elshayyal. But just how significant are these elections? Further, what is the real status of women’s rights and feminism in the Middle East in general and – most importantly – will these elections have wider, regional implications?

It is important to note that the Municipal Councils in question actually have very limited powers in Saudia Arabia. All law-making authority is held by the King, who forms laws largely on the basis of consultation amongst the royal family and the religious establishment. The Municipal Councils deal solely with local issues, such as rubbish collection and street repairs. As a result, the ability of these bodies to influence state policy is virtually non-existent.

In terms of women’s participation, there is also cause for scepticism. Of the 2,100 seats available, only 21 (1%) of the seats were won by women. This means that only 2% of the 979 women who stood in the elections actually won, in contrast to 35% of the 5,938 male candidates who obtained seats. What is perhaps most disappointing about these figures is the role of institutional restrictions in limiting women’s participation. Although women driving in Saudi Arabia is not technically illegal, the state does not issue licenses to women.  As a result, women’s participation as both candidates and voters was restricted by an inability to reach campaigns or polling stations. Roadblocks implemented on Election Day enhanced these difficulties.

Prospective candidates needed to produce identification cards when registering to stand, which many women in the country do not have. The issuing of such cards was also dependent on the approval of district clerks who were not always on duty. These clerks required proof of residence, which male guardians can (and often) refuse to grant, resulting in exclusion from candidacy. The final list of candidates was produced on the first day of the two-week campaign period, meaning those who were excluded had no time to appeal before the election, which took place over the course of one day, often making attendance for prospective voters difficult, especially in light of the severe restrictions on movement for Saudi women.

As a result of these numerous factors, only 132,000 women were registered to vote in comparison to 1.35 million men. What is promising, however, is the respective turnouts of each group. The 47% overall turnout was a culmination of 82% of women taking part in the electoral process and a 44% turnout amongst male voters. A political will for progress and participation, amongst women at least, seems to be present.

However, because it is men in Saudi society who wield all effective power, and because the influence of the religious establishment in decision making processes in the country is  hegemonic, there remains huge obstacles for women’s rights activists. The hyper-conservative brand of Wahhabi Islam practiced by influential clerics is fervently antagonistic to any reform of the Sharia Law, which forms the constitution of the country in an uncodified form. Consequently, proposals for reform are subject to accusations of blasphemy, a hadd (line-crossing) offence which can warrant the death penalty.

Yet it is important to note the ideological significance of the granting of voting rights to women for future progression. Despite criticism from second-wave and radical feminists in the West of the Suffragette Movement’s blinkered focus on enfranchisement, those same critics recognised the movement as a progenitor of their own, creating a sense of a ‘history of women’ which was so important for enhancing the movement’s sense of legitimacy – in a similar manner to how nationalist movements claim validity on the basis of (often manufactured) historical and cultural narratives. The attainment of women’s suffrage in Saudi Arabia, despite its various limitations, can nevertheless be seen as a potential springboard for the creation of a historically-legitimised feminine identity in the nation, which has the potential to advance women’s rights in the country and the region for future generations.

However, the main cultural obstacle for feminist movements in the Middle East is the reproduction, on a national level, of the traditional patriarchal family model, which sees men as active and women as passive members of the nation. In her 2005 study Stories of Women, Elleke Boehmer delineates how post-colonial Middle Eastern nationalist movements reproduce “the ‘natural’, gendered division of the public as against the private sphere at a macropolitical level”, making women mere symbols of the nation as a territorial unit (the motherland), whereas men represent the nation’s active, political aspect. In this context Boehmer views colonialism as an example of men dominating other men, by wresting control of their women. Their symbolic reproduction in nationalist movements is a method of taking this control back – hence the traditional, patriarchal nature of governance across the Middle East. This theory speaks to the process of women’s registration for voting cards and candidacy in the recent Saudi elections which saw, at an institutional level, women being made dependent upon the activity of men (through driving or providing proof of residence) for their obtainment of a supposed political right. Morocco has seen similar circumstances in the past, as their constitutional embodiment of the family code, the Mudawana, governs issues of marriage, inheritance and child custody. This law, as in Saudia Arabia, is based on the Sharia.

Another key obstacle for the advancement of women’s rights in the Middle East is the influence of foreign powers. The issue of colonial powers and control over women has been observed, and consequently today’s attitudes towards intervention on the behalf of Western states is viewed in a similar light by many in the Middle East. However, the focus of nation-building projects on the installation of secular democracies seems to be a perennial oversight. In a 2008 study entitled Women and Nation-building, it was found that there is a greater correlation between instability and the installation of ‘transitional democracies’, than between instability and the promotion of women’s rights. Similarly, a 2011 survey, Gender Role Attitudes: Who Supports Extended Rights for Women in Afghanistan? concluded that the mainstreaming of women is an important influence on stability in nation-building processes. The fact that these studies were undertaken in Afghanistan, where gender has “been one of the most politicized issues over the past 100 years” according to a World Bank published in 2005, is significant, especially in terms of Saudi Arabia, which has a very similar Sunni-Shia population balance to the South Asian state.

In terms of secularism, while there is a strong correlation between secular governments in Muslim-majority countries and greater levels of gender equality as measured against the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2015 Gender Gap Report, the existence of secular constitutions are by no means a guarantee of improved women’s rights. In fact, Turkey, heralded as a trailblazer in the Muslim world for its secular reforms under Kamal Ataturk in the 1920s, ranked 130th out of 145 countries featured in the report, ranking below Malaysia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Tunisia and Algeria, whose constitutions all recognise Islam as the state religion. Chad, which has a secular constitution, ranked at 142nd. Saudi Arabia came in 134th.

What can be concluded from these data is that although there are correlations between the role of religion in the state and gender inequality, these correlations are not rigid. In fact, Bangladesh, which recognises Islam as its state religion, ranked at 64th with a score of 0.704 (where 1 is gender equality and 0 is complete inequality). As a point of reference, the United Kingdom came in 18th with a score of 0.758, which is not, by any means, significantly higher. As a result, the assumptions that secularism is a guarantee of gender equality, or that Islam’s role in influencing national constitutions is fundamentally antagonistic to the achievement of such equality, are to be met with caution. It seems, rather, that the modernisation of infrastructure and the promotion of universal education and enfranchisement are routes to both stability and equality in the Middle East, a conclusion shared by the aforementioned reports on Afghanistan.

Despite the justified reservations of critics regarding the recent Saudi elections, there is cause for cautious optimism in regard to its influence on the future of feminism in the country and the region as a whole. Furthermore, while the role of Islam has often been a rigid stumbling block in women’s empowerment, it cannot be dismissed as the sole issue preventing development. Women’s roles over the years in re-interpreted Islamist movements in Morocco, such as al-Tawhid wa-l-islah and al-‘Adl wa-l-ihsane, which focus on taking back a religion they feel men have misinterpreted and stolen from them, are a testament to this. Moreover, the focus of Afghan and Moroccan feminist movements alike on avoiding the term ‘feminism’, viewed as a fundamentally Western phenomenon, is important to note when formulating a conception of what feminism might mean to those women at the centre of a nascent civil rights movement in the Middle East.


Tim Harvey was politics editor of New Critique. He is senior correspondent for the Organisation for World Peace, reporting on Western foreign policy and the Middle East.

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