Saudi Arabia made history Saturday with municipal elections in which women were allowed to vote and run for office for the first time.
In the end, 20 women won seats among 2,100 up for grabs. That also meant that men voted for women, since the female vote was estimated to have been small, in part because women still are not permitted to drive in the desert monarchy.
Saudi leaders appear to be arriving at an understanding that it is difficult to achieve economic development — not to mention modernity — in a country where half the potential work force, its women, are constrained in the contribution they can make to society and the economy. It may be that the drop in the global price of oil, Saudi Arabia’s chief asset, is causing the country to embrace 21st century reality as it is being squeezed economically.
It may also be that the wolf at its door, the Islamic State group, which is more rigid in its Muslim orthodoxy than Saudi Arabia itself, is prompting the country’s leadership to rethink its future, and that a more modern approach to the role of women is one of the results.
That doesn’t mean that human rights are improving across the board. Saudi Arabia still prefers to conduct its affairs with the door shut. It reluctantly admitted that the number of Muslims killed while making the hajj pilgrimage this year was 2,411 rather than 769. Last month one of its courts sentenced Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian writer in exile in Saudi Arabia, to death for apostasy that he allegedly expressed in poems written years ago. The country has set a 20-year record in the 151 executions carried out so far this year. And the Saudis are still pursuing their brutal war against the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen with backing by the United States.
So while Saudi Arabia is making progress by extending rights to women, it still clings to some old bad habits.
— Pittsburgh Post Gazette
The following editorial first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: