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A big ‘small step’ in Saudi

A big ‘small step’ in Saudi

Women's issues are in vogue in Saudi Arabia now. But while allowing women to vote heralds further changes, don't expect conservative cleric influence in governances to give way just yet.

September 27, 2011 2:33 by

…conservative backlash. And when militants seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 over perceived moral decline, some clerics were sympathetic to them.

Though the al-Sauds may seem to many outsiders to run a state that, as home to Islam’s holiest sites, is a model of piety and traditional morals, their rule — and alliance with the US — was an original cause of the hostility they face from al Qaeda and its Saudi-born founder Osama bin Laden.

Even far from the violent extremes, there has been much resistance to giving women greater freedom. Women’s rights activists faced criticism for campaigning for the right to vote in this week’s municipal elections — the king’s announcement will give them that right only at the next opportunity.

And when women campaigned for the right to drive this summer — some of them taking to wheel in defiance of the law — some conservatives set up a social media group encouraging physical attacks on any woman who dared to follow suit.

King Abdullah has countered resistance in various ways, employing both carrot and stick.

Last year he decreed that only members of the country’s top religious council had the power to issue fatwas, or religious edicts, a move that tried to sideline his most vocal critics.

And in 2009 he fired a senior scholar from an important post after he criticised the first mixed-sex Saudi university and spoke out against the teaching of evolution as an alien idea.

This year, the king has also encouraged clerical favour by big spending on building mosques and on the morality police, as well as by banning media criticism of senior clerics.

In a year when Arab Spring revolts have unseated secular autocrats, the clergy remain a powerful support to the Saudi monarchy, even as it seeks popular favour, too. Votes for women are a significant development for Saudi society, but will not rapidly diminish clerical influence over its politics. (By Asma Alsharif and Angus McDowall; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

Credit: Reuters/Saudi Press Agency/Handout

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