Sunday, 25 September 2011

The vote will not emancipate the women of Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has announced that women are to get the right to vote and to stand in municipal elections. The move is certainly extraordinary in one of the most repressive and patriarchal systems in the world, and has been welcomed by campaigners. However, it is also the absolute least that the country could do for women's rights and leaves a lot to be desired.

There is no doubt that, as with all reforms and improvements across the world, this new right comes as a result of heavy pressure rather than ruling class beneficience. The conditions endured by women in the country are no secret, but it is in the past year that a number of rebellions on issues from driving to male guardianship have challenged the status quo. Not to mention the broader context of the Arab Spring, which did see some protests within Saudi Arabia and has more broadly frightened rulers enough for them to grant concessions in the hope of appeasing discontent.

In terms of the treatment of women, both international pressure and the economic question of having half the population restricted in what work they can do will also play a role. I would certainly be willing to state that the king's "reform agenda" is based more on economic pragmatism and the need to quieten discontent than with any overwhelming concern for human rights. On both fronts, giving women the vote serves a useful purpose.

But, in terms of how much it can do for the real struggle for equality, we have to be very sceptical. Though liberal feminists will use the date women were granted the vote as one indicator of the progress of women's rights, it remains the case that most of the progress towards equality was won by struggles that were largely independent of the right to enter a polling booth and mark an "x" in a box. Indeed, though it now appears that women will have the right to vote in Saudi Arabia long before they ever do in the Vatican, nobody would seriously argue that women have it worse in the latter.

Most eloquent on this subject was Emma Goldman, who was contemporary to the Suffragettes;
Our modern fetich is universal suffrage. Those who have not yet achieved that goal fight bloody revolutions to obtain it, and those who have enjoyed its reign bring heavy sacrifice to the altar of this omnipotent deity. Woe to the heretic who dare question that divinity!


Woman's demand for equal suffrage is based largely on the contention that woman must have the equal right in all affairs of society. No one could, possibly, refute that, if suffrage were a right. Alas, for the ignorance of the human mind, which can see a right in an imposition. Or is it not the most brutal imposition for one set of people to make laws that another set is coerced by force to obey? Yet woman clamors for that "golden opportunity" that has wrought so much misery in the world, and robbed man of his integrity and self-reliance; an imposition which has thoroughly corrupted the people, and made them absolute prey in the hands of unscrupulous politicians.

The poor, stupid, free American citizen! Free to starve, free to tramp the highways of this great country, he enjoys universal suffrage, and, by that right, he has forged chains about his limbs. The reward that he receives is stringent labor laws prohibiting the right of boycott, of picketing, in fact, of everything, except the right to be robbed of the fruits of his labor. Yet all these disastrous results of the twentieth century fetich have taught woman nothing. But, then, woman will purify politics, we are assured.

Needless to say, I am not opposed to woman suffrage on the conventional ground that she is not equal to it. I see neither physical, psychological, nor mental reasons why woman should not have the equal right to vote with man. But that can not possibly blind me to the absurd notion that woman will accomplish that wherein man has failed. If she would not make things worse, she certainly could not make them better. To assume, therefore, that she would succeed in purifying something which is not susceptible of purification, is to credit her with supernatural powers. Since woman's greatest misfortune has been that she was looked upon as either angel or devil, her true salvation lies in being placed on earth; namely, in being considered human, and therefore subject to all human follies and mistakes. Are we, then, to believe that two errors will make a right? Are we to assume that the poison already inherent in politics will be decreased, if women were to enter the political arena?


The women of Australia and New Zealand can vote, and help make the laws. Are the labor conditions better there than they are in England, where the suffragettes are making such a heroic struggle? Does there exist a greater motherhood, happier and freer children than in England? Is woman there no longer considered a mere sex commodity? Has she emancipated herself from the Puritanical double standard of morality for men and women? Certainly none but the ordinary female stump politician will dare answer these questions in the affirmative. If that be so, it seems ridiculous to point to Australia and New Zealand as the Mecca of equal suffrage accomplishments.

On the other hand, it is a fact to those who know the real political conditions in Australia, that politics have gagged labor by enacting the most stringent labor laws, making strikes without the sanction of an arbitration committee a crime equal to treason.

Not for a moment do I mean to imply that woman suffrage is responsible for this state of affairs. I do mean, however, that there is no reason to point to Australia as a wonder-worker of woman's accomplishment, since her influence has been unable to free labor from the thralldom of political bossism.

Finland has given woman equal suffrage; nay, even the right to sit in Parliament. Has that helped to develop a greater heroism, an intenser zeal than that of the women of Russia? Finland, like Russia, smarts under the terrible whip of the bloody Tsar. Where are the Finnish Perovskaias, Spiridonovas, Figners, Breshkovskaias? Where are the countless numbers of Finnish young girls who cheerfully go to Siberia for their cause? Finland is sadly in need of heroic liberators. Why has the ballot not created them? The only Finnish avenger of his people was a man, not a woman, and he used a more effective weapon than the ballot.

As to our own States where women vote, and which are constantly being pointed out as examples of marvels, what has been accomplished there through the ballot that women do not to a large extent enjoy in other States; or that they could not achieve through energetic efforts without the ballot?

True, in the suffrage States women are guaranteed equal rights to property; but of what avail is that right to the mass of women without property, the thousands of wage workers, who live from hand to mouth?


There is no reason whatever to assume that woman, in her climb to emancipation, has been, or will be, helped by the ballot.

In the darkest of all countries, Russia, with her absolute despotism, woman has become man's equal, not through the ballot, but by her will to be and to do. Not only has she conquered for herself every avenue of learning and vocation, but she has won man's esteem, his respect, his comradeship; aye, even more than that: she has gained the admiration, the respect of the whole world. That, too, not through suffrage, but by her wonderful heroism, her fortitude, her ability, will power, and her endurance in the struggle for liberty. Where are the women in any suffrage country or State that can lay claim to such a victory? When we consider the accomplishments of woman in America, we find also that something deeper and more powerful than suffrage has helped her in the march to emancipation.

It is just sixty-two years ago since a handful of women at the Seneca Falls Convention set forth a few demands for their right to equal education with men, and access to the various professions, trades, etc. What wonderful accomplishment, what wonderful triumphs! Who but the most ignorant dare speak of woman as a mere domestic drudge? Who dare suggest that this or that profession should not be open to her? For over sixty years she has molded a new atmosphere and a new life for herself. She has become a world power in every domain of human thought and activity. And all that without suffrage, without the right to make laws, without the "privilege" of becoming a judge, a jailer, or an executioner. 
The struggle for gender equality in Saudi Arabia is in its infancy, and the fact that women there can vote will not alter that. Indeed, it may be enough of a sop to some interests that it will serve to derail it for a time, as it celebrates this victory.

Women in Saudi Arabia, as everywhere, deserve to be given equal standing to men. Nobody can doubt that or make a credible argument against it. But that equality will not come from the ballot box. It will come when women win, through struggle, the right to their own person, to independence in life and love, and to walk through the streets without either religious veil or male companion without fear of reprisal.