Saudis’ Foolish Sexism
Among the inspiring sights from Afghanistan’s elections Saturday, few surpassed the lines of women waiting to vote. Some wore burkas; others covered their hair with scarves but left their faces free. Sadly, that vision is out of reach for the women of Saudi Arabia, be they desert dwellers or urban bearers of PhDs, as the kingdom struggles to emerge from the Middle Ages.
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz, a rock among the hard-liners, announced Sunday that women would not take part in municipal elections next year. The balloting had been billed as a major step toward breaking the shackles of autocratic rule, and there had been hints that women might get to vote.
Saudi officials boast that women are encouraged to get college degrees. They neglect to say that afterward it’s back to the women’s quarters at home for virtually all the graduates. The jobs go to men. That’s true even if the men have to be imported: Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and other foreigners are hired to do jobs that Saudis won’t, such as driving women, who are forbidden to get behind the wheel.
Depriving half the population of a voice and stake in governance is foolish at a moment when the royal family has finally awakened to the threat it faces from Islamic extremists. It may play well with conservatives, including those among the nation’s hundreds of princes, but it won’t appease the radicals who see their rulers as corrupt. It will make Saudi Arabia a weaker society, less able to resist the extremists.
U.S. forces and international aid groups poured lives, money and effort into helping Afghan women vote. Washington’s silence regarding Saudi women is deafening.
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