King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Sunday granted women the right to vote and run in future municipal elections, the biggest change in a decade for women in a puritanical kingdom that practices strict gender separation, including banning women from driving.
Saudi women, who are legally subject to male chaperones for almost any public activity, hailed the royal decree as an important, if limited, step toward making them equal to their male counterparts. They said the uprisings sweeping the Arab world for the past nine months -- along with sustained domestic pressure for women's rights and a more representative form of government -- prompted the change.
"There is the element of the Arab spring, there is the element of the strength of Saudi social media, and there is the element of Saudi women themselves, who are not silent," said Hatoon al-Fassi, a history professor and one of the women who organized a campaign demanding the right to vote this spring. "Plus, the fact that the issue of women has turned Saudi Arabia into an international joke is another thing that brought the decision now."
Although political activists celebrated the change, they also cautioned how deep it would go, and how fast. Some women wondered aloud how they would be able to campaign for office when they were not even allowed to drive. And there is a long history of royal decrees stalling, as weak enactment collides with the bulwark of traditions ordained by the Wahhabi sect of Islam and its fierce resistance to change.
In his announcement, the king said that women would also be appointed to the Majlis Al-Shura, a consultative council that advises the monarchy on matters of public policy. But it is a toothless body that avoids matters of royal prerogative, like where the nation's oil revenue goes.
"We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society," the king said in an annual address to the Shura, noting during the five minutes he spent on the subject that senior religious scholars had endorsed the change.
Even under the new law, it was unclear how many women would take part in elections. In many aspects of life, men -- whether fathers, husbands or brothers -- prevent women from participating in legal activities. Women's education took years to gain acceptance after it was introduced decades ago.
King Abdullah, 87, the monarch who has a reputation for pushing reforms opposed by some of his half-brothers among the senior princes, said the monarchy was simply following Islamic guidelines, and that those who shunned such practices were "arrogant."
Some analysts described the king's choice as the path of least resistance. Many Saudis have been loudly demanding that all 150 members of the Shura be elected, not appointed as they are now. By suddenly putting women in the mix, activists feared, the government might use the excuse of integration to delay introducing a nationally elected council.
Political participation for women is also a less contentious issue than granting them the right to drive, an idea fiercely opposed by some of the most powerful clerics and princes. Even as the king made the political announcement, activists said that one prominent opponent of the ban, Najla al-Hariri, was being hauled in for questioning Sunday for continuing her stealth campaign of driving.
Ms. Hariri has been vociferous in demanding the right as a single mother who cannot afford one of the ubiquitous foreign chauffeurs to ferry her children to school. In recent weeks, a woman even drove down King Fahd Expressway, the main thoroughfare through downtown Riyadh, activists said.
Women require the permission of a male sponsor, or "mahram," to travel or undertake much of the commercial activity needed to run a business. They inhabit separate and often inferior spaces in restaurants, banks and health clubs, when they are allowed in at all.
Women were granted the right to their own national identification cards in 2001, the last major step that many hoped would lead to greater public freedom, but it failed to materialize. The Saudi judiciary, a conservative bastion, has yet to allow female lawyers, a new phenomenon, to argue in court. And a royal decree issued earlier this year that women should be allowed to work in public to sell lingerie has not been enacted -- leaving Saudi women to buy their bras from male clerks, who mostly hail from South Asia.
Correction/Clarification: (Published September 28, 2011) A story Monday about women in Saudi Arabia being granted the right to vote ended in mid-sentence. That sentence should have read as follows: And a royal decree issued earlier this year that women should be allowed to work in public to sell lingerie has not been enacted -- leaving Saudi women to buy their bras from male clerks, who mostly hail from South Asia.