This week, Saudi Arabia has finally granted women the right to vote. In his speech making the announcement, King Abdullah declared,"Because we refuse to marginalise women in society in all roles that comply with sharia (Islamic law), we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulama (clerics) and others... to involve women in the Shura Council as members, starting from the next term. Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote." The kicker? The phrase "starting from next term," which means they are still barred from voting in the elections this week, and so they won't actually be able to vote until 2015. But still, it's a long time coming and worth celebrating.
Currently there are three countries which prohibit or limit women's voting in some way:
Lebanon - Partial suffrage. Proof of elementary education is required for women but not for men. Voting is compulsory for men but optional for women.
Brunei - No suffrage for women or men. Neither have had the right to vote or to stand for election since 1962 because the country is governed by an absolute monarchy.
Vatican City - No suffrage for women; while most men in the Vatican also lack the vote, all persons with suffrage in Papal conclaves (the Cardinals) are male.
(Bhutan did have a one vote per house rule which I believe was done away with in their new constitution which took effect in 2008. Although this vote applied to both men and women, in practice it limited many more women from voting than men. United Arab Emirates also had limited suffrage for women beginning in 2006, but was fully expanded by 2010.)
So women being able to vote in Saudi Arabia is great news. Unfortunately, women are still barred from driving there--the only country with such a ban (there is no religious written precedent for the rule). Two days after the voting news was announced, a woman was sentenced to ten lashes for driving a vehicle. The current set-up is that since a woman can't drive, the family must either employ a professional driver--which many families can't afford since it is costs around $300-400 a month to keep a full-time driver on stand-by for any errands needed; or else she must be driven by her husband or other close male relative. Again, it's costly since many men have also complained about it, and how the policy often forces them to leave work early to go pick up their wife somewhere (or else leave work to be the one to pick up children from school even though wife may not be working and would have time to do herself), as well as the daunting logistics of planning all the errands and whatever else may involve driving to coincide with whenever the husband is available. Supposedly women do sometimes drive out in the countryside, but any woman caught driving in the city is detained by police, sometimes for several days, and forced to sign a pledge that she won't drive again. Women have been working for at least 20 years in an attempt to get the ban revoked, but since June there is been an increase in women trying to flout the ban and bring attention to the unfair policy. In addition to the no driving rule, under Saudi's “guardianship system,” women need permission from a male family member to take a trip, to attend a university, to marry, and even to undergo certain surgeries. While those guardians are often fathers or husbands; if she has no father or husband, a woman's teenage son, younger brother, or uncle could be the one making her most important decisions for her.
And in other hail-worthy news, Kenya has become the latest country to ban female genital mutilation, including taking a child/woman out of the country with the intention of cutting her. What makes their law unique, is that it even prohibits people from making derogatory remarks about an uncut woman; and offenders may be subject to either a fine or jail time, or both. Which is fantastic, since often in countries where FGM is practiced, a woman who has not been cut may be subject to public shunning, men refusing to consider her for marriage and so on. In June at the African Union summit, it was proposed that FGM be prohibited. At the time, several countries already had some form of legislation or proposed legislation against it (although enforcement may have varied): Benin, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Kenya, Central African Republic, Senegal, Chad, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda. In a total of nine countries (including some of those where it is illegal) an estimated 85% of all women undergo FGM: Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan.
Although the subject is intense, there are two excellent movies I recommend which deal with FGM. The first is Moolaade, about a woman who takes in young girls after they flee from their FGM ceremony and stands up to the village in refusing to let them be cut. The second is Desert Flower, based on the autobiography of Waris Dirie, a model from Somalia who was one of the first public figures to speak out against FGM beginning in 1997, and who became a UN Special Ambassador for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation.