King Abdullah should be applauded for overturning a court verdict in Saudi Arabia that sentenced a woman to 10 lashings for driving a car. It came on the heels of another announcement, made by the octogenarian monarch this week, to allow women to vote (although not in Thursday's municipal elections) and to stand as candidates by 2015.
These are welcome gestures from a King with a progressive streak. However, if Saudi Arabia wants to be taken seriously in the global sphere – and credibly fulfill its potential as a leader in the Islamic world – it must do more to reform the arcane guardian laws that prevent women from opening bank accounts, visiting doctors or travelling without being accompanied by a male relative.
There really is no religious justification for treating women like children. Nothing in the Koran forbids women from driving. Saudi Arabia bases its segregation of genders on Wahhabism, a puritanical interpretation of Islam. However, with the launch of the Arab spring, and with the appetite for change increasing in its own society, this form of Islam is no longer free of dispute, if it ever was, notes Claire Spencer with the UK-based think tank Chatham House.
The education – albeit segregated – of women in Saudi Arabia has created a more questioning society, and while it is highly doubtful that mass protests will ever come to the Kingdom, the country is not immune to an internal push for social transition.
The King must continue to craft an alternative narrative of the role of Muslim women in modern life.
Then his political reforms will have more meaning. For how can a woman really campaign if she is fully veiled, and requires a male guardian to travel to campaign stops (besides the fact that no national elections have ever been held in Saudi Arabia)? Saudi Arabia must rid its society of the inequities women face – symbolized by, but by no means restricted to, their legal inability to drive.