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Let’s give Saudi Arabia the world’s tiniest gold star for finally allowing women to vote

Veiled Saudi women wait for their drivers outside a shopping mall in Riyadh.
Veiled Saudi women wait for their drivers outside a shopping mall in Riyadh.

Let’s all give the world’s quietest, tiniest "yay" for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which last week began allowing women to register to vote in municipal elections for the first time. The change has been a long time coming: The late King Abdullah actually agreed the voting reform in 2011, but delayed its effect until this year.

Saudi women campaigned for this right for years, and their achievement shouldn’t be minimized. But Saudi Arabia remains an autocratic hereditary monarchy and one of the most repressive nations on Earth for women. This reform is not much more than window dressing that, in its superficiality, calls attention to just how unfree the country remains — particularly for women.

Why, just imagine what Saudi Arabia would be like if the country made similar progress on other desperately needed reforms. Here's what we can expect if Saudi Arabia continues to make largely empty, surface-level reforms to its systemically unjust policies:

  • All public buildings would continue to have separate entrances for men and women. However, there would be a third door that both men and women could use. It would be locked at all times.
  • Women would still be legally required to have a male chaperone with them in public at all times, but they would be permitted to complain loudly about how annoying and uncool the chaperone is.
  • Women would still be informally banned from driving cars, but could attend public screenings of the Speed Racer movie whenever they wanted.
  • Women would still be required to cover themselves completely when in public, but at the beginning of each new social interaction they would be permitted to draw themselves, Pictionary-style, in the clothes they were wearing under their veils and abayas.
  • Women still wouldn’t be able to prevent their husbands from taking additional wives, but the government would offer state-sponsored first wives’ clubs to facilitate plucky vengeance capers that culminate in fully veiled lip-syncing to Leslie Gore songs.
  • Immigrant domestic workers, whether male or female, would still be subjected to physical and sexual abuse, withheld wages, and even human trafficking with little legal recourse, but their employers would be under more social pressure to pretend to feel bad about it.

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