You've come a long way

By Phil Plait | September 29, 2011 11:07 am

This week, women in Saudi Arabia were given the right to vote and to run for municipal office.

First off, this is fantastic news. Saudi Arabia is one of the more repressive countries for women, so to see them taking this major step is, well, wonderful! King Abdullah has been making small steps towards reform for years. While I want to see women have full rights everywhere on Earth, I understand the political need to take it slowly in Saudi Arabia. It’s a very conservative religious country, and the backlash if things move too quickly could be extraordinary.

There’s much left to do, of course. Women still have a long way to go there; they are not allowed to drive or to leave the country unaccompanied, for example. But this is the right way to move. I just hope that vector stays pointed true.

I also want to relate my own thinking when I first read this news. My initial thought was snark; Welcome to the 20th century was literally the first thing I thought. My second thought was what I wrote above about this being fantastic news.

My third thought was the most interesting to me. It was contrition: in the United States, a country where we pride ourselves on being modern and forward-thinking (usually), women didn’t get the vote until 1920 — nationally, at least; at the local and state level those rights were slowly being granted for years.

So 90 years ago, women here in the US didn’t have the right to vote, and we weren’t (officially) a religious kingdom. Just to put how big a deal this Saudi Arabia news is into perspective.

We still have lots of progress to make here in the States, too. But it’s nice to know that even in places like Saudi Arabia, progress can be made.

However, just to be clear, keep in mind just how far we have to go: in Pakistan, a girl is making news because her family refuses to have her killed, as is customary, because she was raped. Honor killings, as these are called, are still quite common.

So. I’ll just leave you with this.

Related posts:

International Women’s Day
100 years of International Women’s Day
Women as planetary science role models
Space girl


Comments (48)

  1. JJ (the other one)

    (warning; not my joke)

    Big news from Saudi Arabia today. The king has announced that women will be able to vote in the next set of elections. All they need to do is show a valid driver’s license at the polls.

  2. Dave

    Blah blah blah, thought this was an Astronomy blog, harumph, grumble, blah.

    Just another reason to support green energy and not be (as) dependent on bass ackwards countries like Saudi Arabia.

  3. Mejilan

    Didn’t they just sentence a woman to 10 lashes for driving?
    Progress is progress, but they do have a long way to go, yet.

  4. Dan I.

    While I agree that is a step in the right direction it may be a distinction without a difference.

    Think about it, women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive so how exactly are they supposed to get to the polls?

    This could easily end up in a similar to situation to post-Reconstruction African-American voting rights in the South. Yes, legally, African-Americans could vote, but they had to pass literacy tests etc. Legally the right existed, but practically it could never be exercised. We may have a similar situation develop here.

  5. Cheyenne

    This is a welcome step but let’s not forget that Saudi Arabia is not remotely a real democracy. It’s an absolute monarchy backed by Wahhabi clerics. The seats that women can run for and vote for don’t have any real power. So it’s a good baby step – but I don’t think I would call it “fantastic news”.

  6. Kullat Nunu

    Phil, don’t get too excited. The municipal councils have no political power whatsoever. The king is doing just some small cosmetic changes.

    Saudi Arabia is, and remains, the most oppressive dictatorship in the world, in both political and religious sense.

    And yeah, no country is “okay” in the sense of women’s rights. I happen to live in one of the most equal countries in the world, yet even here there is so much to do.

  7. Chris

    There is a good practical reason why women aren’t allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. You ever try to drive wearing a burka? It’s not very safe.

  8. Alan

    A man flying from London to Saudi Arabia asked one of the cabin crew what the time difference was. The reply was “three thousand years”!

  9. Chris

    Yeah but look what happened after the US gave women the right to vote

  10. BJN

    I think the announcement was just the House of Saud doing its version of public relations spin on the rest of the world. Voting in Saudi Arabia is meaningless no matter what the citizen’s gender.

  11. Dan I.

    Plus these new rights don’t take effect for 4 years. Why not immediately? Why not next year? Because there is little to no intent on actually following through with this promise. By the time 4 years rolls around they’ll forget that the King ever made this announcement.

  12. Robin

    How nice. I think it’s oh-so special that we continue to support such a backwards and brutal regime. Apparently the idea of spreading democracy and freedom doesn’t apply to Saudi Arabia.

  13. Keith Bowden

    Of course it’s a baby step. As a token gesture, it was unthinkable before (and to some it probably still is). If there were real empowerment behind it there would be riots. Keep it in perspective, everyone – it is good news because it’s the first step, not because the goal has been reached.

  14. RobT

    Yes, Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go. They tried to intimidate, somewhat successfully, to stop Canadian television stations from showing an ad for ethical oil. The ad puts Saudi Arabia in a bad light in regards to women’s rights and said nothing which is not true. No matter one’s point of view on oil being ethical or not this should still make one angry that a country as repressive as that should try to control what is shown on a free country’s television network.

    They hired one of the world’s largest law firms to intimidate broadcasters by threatening legal action. Just the threat of that was enough to stop 2 networks showing the ad including one of the largest in Canada. This is unacceptable.

  15. Interesting use of the worlds most famous (fictional) mysonginist.

  16. QuietDesperation

    As a token gesture, it was unthinkable before…

    …the “Arab Spring” in nearby countries. This was a bone tossed out to avoid uprising.

    it is good news because it’s the first step

    Well, it’s better than nothing, I suppose.

  17. Chris

    This is the one that blows my mind: Swiss women didn’t get the franchise until 1971.

  18. Ron1

    @3. Mejilan Said: “Didn’t they just sentence a woman to 10 lashes for driving?”


    29 September, 2010 … BBC news reporting her sentence was overturned by the king.


  19. Wzrd1

    What is funny is, the king of Saudi had asked his council to permit women to drive 6 times since he ascended to the throne. Each time, his council refused.
    I suspect this might by both a forcing of granting women their rights AND a message to his council.

    BTW, for those asking how the women would get to the polls, families hire a driver for the woman to go to wherever she wishes to go, whether it’s work, shopping or visiting friends.

  20. Turboblocke

    Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women , signed by the USA in 1980, not yet ratified!!!

  21. Josh

    Technically there is no “right to vote” in the United States either. The Constitution and amendments only state that people may not be prohibited from voting based on gender or a poll tax and other things.

  22. Monkey

    More fodder to the fight – the women, while able to vote, still need their male guardian to permit it. Whether this reaches into “who” these free women vote for would only be conjecture, but the fact is that when you pile up the evidence….unless a few years down the road proves me wrong (during which time the rights of women are elevated to a practical and equal level of the rest of their society), I say that this is shy of a necessary goal. Or, maybe things in places like that have to move slowly…getting the crowd behind you and all that.

  23. Gezzer

    Any current progressive changes in the Arab world are tainted with the fact of not necessarily wanting the crowd behind them, but more wanting to prevent the crowd being in front of them brandishing automatic rifles.
    With that said it’s hard to be certain whether this is simply lip service or an actual step forward for human rights in their country. Only time or revolution will tell.

  24. Wzrd1

    Things like this will have to move slowly there, due to the nature of the Saud family’s rise to power.
    But, it took quite a bit of time for equality to arise here in the US.
    My mother could not own real property when she was married at 18 years of age, whereas a man COULD own real property.
    Women originally were not permitted to drive a motor vehicle in many states.
    But, the changes came, slowly at first, then rapidly later.
    I’ll say from direct, personal experience, most Arab men do not believe in oppressing their wives and are not very fond of the expense of a driver, to drive their wife around on errands while he’s at work.
    The religious police in Saudi are frequently found beaten and ditched in the desert outside of the city. THAT is one that was told to me by many Arabs.
    But, they have their religious conservatives just like we do. The difference is, THOSE conservatives use bombs and automatic weapons more frequently than ours do.

  25. Timbo

    Perhaps the US could give the people a constitutional right to vote. Maybe one day, I suppose.

  26. solius

    “It’s a very conservative religious country, and the backlash if things move too quickly could be extraordinary. “

    Words of wisdom to the Jacobin atheists found on Myers’ temple of sycophancy.

  27. Your blog can be such an emotional roller-coaster ride! Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a very good thing. I just experienced wonder looking at the aurora time-lapse videos, surprise at the exquisite talent of Dan Durda, a mixture of joy, sadness and frustration after reading the current post.

    Oh and solius, you obviously don’t read Pharyngula that much. Bad Astronomy and Pharyngula are my favorite blogs around, and I read each and every post on each. Your accusation is just false. The discrepancy between Phil’s point of view and PZ’s point of view on anything is vastly exaggerated. The major difference between these two guys is the tone, but the ideas they share with us are almost invariably compatible.

  28. Jimi

    @16. Bingo. Avoid the Arab spring at all cost. This has been my biggest knock on the Obama administration. How in the heck can you ask Mubarak to step down, when he was the ONLY leader in the middle east who kept a strong peace with Israel for over 3 decades? Was Egypt a model for democracy? No it wasn’t. But I would love for anyone to put the Saudis above Egypt in terms of tolerance. Somebody want to take on that argument? In one simple statement our administration said Mr. Mubarak should step down. Dictator.. Hells yes. Better than the rest? Same sentiment.

    I for one will never applaud a group who I know is telling me exactly what I want to hear. Put it this way Phil, Would you feel comfortable letting a beloved female family member travel to Saudi without you? Trust me, they have not even traveled a short distance, let alone a LONG way. Don’t make me quote Winston Wolfe :)

    Keep up the good work Phil. I ain’t mad at ya!

  29. Nigel Depledge

    @ Jimi (28) –
    Yeah, but Saudi is a major oil exporter, so no-one wants to run the risk of upsetting them.


  30. Nigel Depledge

    @ Solius (26) –
    So, did you have a point?

  31. “in Pakistan, a girl is making news because her family refuses to have her killed, as is customary, because she was raped.”

    Aaahhh yes, a strategic ally of the USA.

  32. Gonçalo Aguiar

    It is not only Muslims that oppress women. Catholic Christians don’t allow women to be priests or bishops or even run for pope. There are several passages within the bible that inhibit women of certain freedoms that men have access too.
    In fact I am almost 100% sure that the cause of women being so much oppressed both in muslim and christian worlds it’s simply because of religion doctrines. What is the role of the women in the bible besides having children? The hole book is like 90% filled with men. Women just feel subpar to everything else.

  33. Jimi

    @32. Uhhhh, Maybe you shouldn’t equate actual state policy to passages in a book. I think Women not being allowed in the Catholic boy’s club affects very few in this world.

    The strong women I know don’t feel inferior to men. I shudder to think how they would react if they, by law and fear they are denied basic human rights. think for one second how you would react if opening your own front door invites fear into your life, not by criminals, but by the law.

  34. Ray

    @ Robin @ 12

    “How nice. I think it’s oh-so special that we continue to support such a backwards and brutal regime. Apparently the idea of spreading democracy and freedom doesn’t apply to Saudi Arabia.”

    Actually, the US has been putting pressure on the Saudis for years to get these kinds of reforms. A press with more freedom, voting for local councils (even though they have no power), women voting, these are all things we’ve been pushing the Saudis to do for the last two decades.

    While we in the US may not think much of voting for powerless councils and such, think of this logically. Do you really want to give the vote and ultimate power to people with no experience at democracy? Give the Saudis a real vote with real consequences today and I don’t think you’d be happy with the results. On the other hand, give them some experience with democracy and a few years from now will be different. Baby steps.

    (on a side note, the above is why we – the US – is not gonna be happy with the results of elections in Egypt and Libya. It’s already clear to many observers that Egypt is not going to be a democracy in any real sense, and Libya will likely go the same way)

  35. Bob

    In 2015 — things may change….

  36. Jason

    @32 Goncalo
    I feel it would be pointless to point out the theological reasoning behind the Catholic Church policy on women and the priesthood, or biblical views on Marriage and the relationship between men and women. But if one truly studies into the scriptures, especially the New Testament, I think you will find that the supposed subjugation of women is not what you think it is. The passages referenced, and generally used to try and justify the subjugation of women mainly deal with the relationship between husband and wife and there is very little said about single women that does not also apply to single men. Even those passages are often misused and do not look at either the context or often the accompanying texts.

  37. mike burkhart

    This is good news like Phil I surport equalty for Women.Phil before you get to harsh on Arabs lets look at history.While Europe was haveing a ”darkage” Arabia had a gloden age,they had an empire larger then Rome and they led the world in sciencetific knolege especily in Astronomy ,Arabs knew before Copernicus that the Earth orbited the Sun ,and they preseverd the astronomical knolege of the Greeks and other acient culters and had the most advanced astronomical insterments of the day.In fact modern astronomy might not exsit with out the Arab astronomers of the Arabin gloden age.

  38. Peter

    @28, Jimi

    I’ll take on that argument. There was an opportunity to help Egypt change to a more stable and legitimate form of government: “consent of the governed”. This is that model that we here in the west feel is the “best”. This change will be dangerous and unstable for a while but with our help it can result in a much better partner for us in the region.

    Egypt is a cornerstone both politically and geographically.

    You want cornerstones to be stable, and dictatorships are not stable in the long term. The arab spring has been showing just how unstable dictatorships can be. In the west we have stable transitions of power every few years and even extremely contentions (Bush v. Gore in 2000) transitions do not threaten stability.

    As humanity advances technologically even relatively small nations become capable of truly dangerous actions (nuclear weapons, biological and chemical warfare, etc.). This relentless technological improvement means that the stability or sanity of other nations is vitally important to us.

    Short of global warming and asteroid strikes it’s the nations that lack the consent of the governed that are the biggest threat to our way of life or our very existence.


  39. Paul A.

    “This week, women in Saudi Arabia were given the right to vote and to run for municipal office.”

    If her husband or father lets her, and she can find a male to drive her to the polling place.

  40. Wzrd1

    Paul, Saudi women are normally provided a driver and car by their husband, otherwise, she can’t visit her family, go to the store and get food and clothing, etc. I personally know a few Saudi families, they all HATE having to pay for a driver, but are stuck with it right now.
    I don’t know of ANY Saudi who would want to risk disobeying his king’s wishes, as THAT can become a very, very unpleasant experience, such as a one way trip to the empty quarter.

  41. Radwaste

    Hmm. I bet the woman’s vote is worth half that of a man’s.

    In other news, TODAY is the anniversary of the Mohammed Cartoons, which started such an uproar.

    And – while it is a noble thing to say “everyone should be able to vote”, there is significant evidence in the USA that this is not a good idea, because people have discovered they can vote themselves money.

  42. Wzrd1

    Radwaste, your opinion is based upon what? Your vast experience gained from your twinkie encrusted couch?
    I, at least, LIVED in the region and worked there and far worse places for nearly 5 years.

    As for your objection, that is older than Heinlein. That is older than me. I’m slightly older than dirt, as I was on the first dirt delivery project for the Earth.
    You remain an idiot, as evidenced by your post.

  43. solius

    Micheal wrote:

    Oh and solius, you obviously don’t read Pharyngula that much. Bad Astronomy and Pharyngula are my favorite blogs around, and I read each and every post on each. Your accusation is just false. The discrepancy between Phil’s point of view and PZ’s point of view on anything is vastly exaggerated.

    au contraire mon frere

    I have read both blogs for years. I found Dr. Plait’s site at about the time of the transit of Venus, and Myers’ rants, soon there after. And, I have visited both, nearly, daily. You sir, appear to be tilting at windmills. As, I never made a claim that Drs. Plait and Myers positions were too dissimilar.

    Nigel Depledge wrote:

    @ Solius (26) –
    So, did you have a point?

    Yes. And explicit in that point is a perfunctory understanding of history.

  44. flip

    #34, Ray

    “Do you really want to give the vote and ultimate power to people with no experience at democracy?”

    Is this an argument for or against giving people the right to vote? Because I’m betting that somewhere at some point, an argument was made *against* voting rights because people were too dumb/female/naive/’wrong’ race to vote intelligently. I agree with the use of baby steps, but I don’t agree with the way you’ve argued for it.

    In fact, I’d say that people given the vote for the first time are more likely to approach it with careful deliberation than one who is used to it but can’t be bothered participating. (Just a guess, without looking at polling studies) For instance, I can’t not vote – it’s compulsory – but I don’t dive much into who I’m voting for. I read basic literature that comes in the post, and always mean to look more in-depth at policies but never manage to do it. I’m a woman, but take my vote too lightly; I can imagine quite easily that if my next vote was actually my first ever, then I’d be doing damn sure to use it wisely (particularly if it meant voting in people who cared more about my rights and less about denying women the vote).

    I’d say that the more important thing to worry about is the system of government and how people get voted in, not that people have rights to vote (or limited rights to vote), at least in terms of figuring out who to vote for. Whether done in one swoop or baby steps, you’d still need to educate the populace as to how voting works; which is done in all countries anyway due to new citizenships, people coming of age, etc.

    PS. I’m in Australia: Indigenous Australians were only given the vote in the (late?) 1960s. Sad to think that my newly arrived grandparents from Europe had more rights than those who are native to the country. And annoyed that more is yet to be done to see people around the world have the kinds of freedoms I enjoy every day.

  45. Wzrd1

    @Flip, #44:
    I’ve long said, people get the government that they deserve. For, if they believed that they deserved better, their government would be replaced by one that is better. Whether it is by vote of the ballot, the vote of the national strikes or the vote of violence.
    ALL of those methods have replaced a government that the populace decided was ineffective, oppressive or incompetent.
    For, even the dictatorship with the largest iron fist cannot enlist half of the nation into the military, nor can said dictatorship force an unwilling military to enforce his or her wishes.

    I was unaware that voting was compulsory in Australia. What is the penalty for not voting?

    As for aboriginal rights, it seems that your government took many notes from the US treatment of the Native Americans, complete with reservations. Reservations in Australia, in which alcohol was banned by the Australian government, citing criminal problems due to alcohol consumption. So, the rights STILL are not QUITE present for them.
    Hopefully soon, BOTH of our nations will unscrew up our aboriginal populace problems, for the current dole system isn’t working at all. :/

  46. flip

    #45, Wzrd1

    As far as I’m aware, not voting comes with a fine. I’ve not really paid attention though, so I could be wrong.

    I will agree with you there are still some problems within the Indigenous community, however my point was not that things were now ‘fixed’, but to remind people that there are plenty of other groups who previously were not allowed to vote (also to point out how recent the change is) and that voting seems to be taken for granted in first world countries (I know a few in my family do ‘donkey votes’). But I’ll say a “me too” towards unscrewing local problems due to colonisation.

  47. Nigel Depledge

    Solius (43), responding to my post #30, said:

    Yes. And explicit in that point is a perfunctory understanding of history.

    I quite obviously have a greater understanding of history than you credit me with, i.e. I know some stuff.

    Your preceding comment, however, did not make even the pretense of an argument, which is the main thrust of my question.

    If you have a point to make, and you very clearly claim this to be the case, how about you make it explicitly, rather than by some snide form of insinuation? Hey, you could maybe even outline the reasoning and evidence that supports your point.

  48. Matt B.

    Math check: 90 years ago was 1921, so women did have the right to vote that long ago.


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