The news that Saudi women will soon be given the right to vote — if the year 2015 is considered “soon” — is being hailed around the world as remarkable. The BBC called it “groundbreaking,” the White House called it an “important step forward,” and Saudi women activists called it “great news.”
But this change, which arrived a century late (Finland became the first country to grant universal suffrage in 1906, and a dozen other countries followed suit), is also a troubling indicator about the reality of women’s lives, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. It demonstrates just how far behind Arab culture is from the Western world, and it is a disquieting reminder of just how dangerous the language of “slow change” can be, especially for women — in all cultures.
To be sure, Saudi women need the vote. But they also need other basic rights that they are thus far deprived of. Saudi women still cannot drive or leave their houses without being accompanied by a male — whether that male is a 10-year-old brother or an aging grandfather. Women are forbidden from opening bank accounts, obtaining passports or even going to school without the presence of a male guardian. Meanwhile, this vote is limited in its impact: Saudi Arabia is still a monarchy, with all that implies. The local councils that women will now be allowed to vote in are ultimately bound by the final royal word, which is in turn tightly bound by religious authority. And incidentally, the reason that Saudi officials cited for having to wait until 2015 for women’s voting is because the government has to construct gender-segregated voting facilities.
So while news of women’s vote is a welcome change, it is a small one. The news is akin to fixing a leaky sink when there is a burst pipe behind the wall; it may succeed in fixing one aspect of the problem, but a close look will reveal the colossal proportions of the issue.
But this is about more than Saudi Arabia, and women of the world should watch closely. Note, for example, how King Abdullah tried to spin his country as being good to women. In his official statement, he said, “We reject to marginalize the role of women in the Saudi society, in every field of works.”
Women are treated like imbecilic children in his country, but he denies that they are “marginalized.” It is reminiscent of some Jewish apologetics who deny gender equality while arguing that Jewish women are treated like queens. These are rhetorical tricks for keeping women down and trying to convince women otherwise — tricks that clearly cross religions and cultures.
Moreover, there will undoubtedly be pundits quick to argue that this story illustrates how remarkable Israel is compared to the Arab world, especially in terms of women’s rights. While I am not averse to gaining some much-needed world sympathy for Israel, I think we would be wise to refrain from such self-righteousness about Israel’s record on gender. According to the Inter-parliamentary Union, Israel currently ranks a paltry 57th in the world in terms of female parliamentary representation, with 23 out of 120 (19.2 percent) female Knesset members, and six out of 154 (3.9 percent) female mayors. Comparing Israel to Saudi Arabia, which is tied for last place with Oman, Qatar, Palau, Belize, Micronesia, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands (all with zero female representation in government), only means that Israel is not entirely stuck in the dark ages. It would be much more helpful for Israel to look up the list and not down the list, to find out how the 56 countries with better rankings on gender issues do it.
But I think there are also warning signs here for Israel. The movement for greater gender segregation and female body cover that is infiltrating Israeli public life — including buses, planes, the light rail, the post office, streets, conferences, army events, municipal events and more — has sinister echoes of Saudi Arabian life. It is a reminder that the culture of gender segregation is not about a particular religious ideology but rather about embedded ideas about gender that are given a stamp of approval by religious authorities. When political powers that be give absolute authority to religious bodies, women are often the ones to suffer most. Put differently, we need to remind Israel’s political leaders that we are already beginning to resemble Saudi Arabia.
There is an important message here about social change and the historical process. People who advance gender reform in Orthodox Jewish life are often told by rabbinical authorities to be patient, that change takes time.
The slow change argument doesn’t work, and neither does waiting patiently. Change requires visible action — protesting, speaking out and making noise. Jewish women should take heed.
(Elana Maryles Sztokman is an author, educator, researcher and consultant who has been involved in Jewish education and communal life for the past 20 years.)