Monday, March 28, 2011

When will women get the vote?

With it being census time it's somehow fitting to look back one hundred years to the 1911 census that was subject to a controversial boycott by the Suffragettes. Writing comments like “If I am intelligent enough to fill in this paper, I am intelligent enough to put a cross on a voting paper” or “No votes for women, no census” thousands of activists for women's suffrage protested the census.

My favourite story of the year is, of course, that of Emily Wilding Davison who, census night, hid herself in a House of Commons cupboard so she could legally say she resided in Parliament on the census form. Emily famously died two years later under the hooves of the King's horse.

Many struggles for women's equality have not been won but we do generally accept that women did win the vote and we don't want to go back. I don't think that's controversial is it?

So I was interested to read that in Saudi Arabia they've decided that they aren't quite prepared for women to be voting - literally. There are municipal elections due in Saudi next month and women were scheduled to be able to vote for the first time. Sadly this is not to be.

"We are not ready for the participation of women in these municipal elections," said the head of the electoral committee Abdulrahman al-Dahmash, while at the same time renewing promises that authorities would allow women to take part "in the next ballot."

He said that "Participation of women in elections took place in most advance countries gradually," which does not explain why no women will be allowed to stand or vote in these elections. There were steps along the way to, for example, equalising the age of suffrage between men and women but the first step was not cancelling the right to vote at all.

Considering Saudi troops are currently in Bahrain  keeping the democratic forces down there it seems of a piece that they should postpone any democratic reform at home too. Indeed recent decrees in the last two weeks have declared that anyone criticising senior clerics are to be 'untouchable' and must be severely punished and protests have been banned.

For most of us in this country we see votes for women as an established fact, yet in many parts of the world governments that are our business partners and friends deny the people even this basic democratic right. Of course in Saudi women can't drive let alone vote but there are nascent movements for women's equality and for democratic reform. 

Caught between the inspiration of the uprisings around the Arab world and fear of their repressive government those movements must feel themselves on the cliff edge, unsure whether to jump off and fly, or perhaps hurtle to ground.


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