King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Sunday granted women the right to vote and run in future municipal elections, the biggest change in a decade for women in a puritanical kingdom that practices strict separation of the sexes, including banning women from driving.
Saudi women, who are legally subject to male chaperones for almost any public activity, hailed the royal decree as an important, if limited, step toward making them equal to their male counterparts. They said the uprisings sweeping the Arab world for the past nine months — along with sustained domestic pressure for women’s rights and a more representative form of government — prompted the change.
“There is the element of the Arab Spring, there is the element of the strength of Saudi social media, and there is the element of Saudi women themselves, who are not silent,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a history professor and one of the women who organized a campaign demanding the right to vote this spring. “Plus, the fact that the issue of women has turned Saudi Arabia into an international joke is another thing that brought the decision now.”
Although political activists celebrated the change, they also cautioned how deep it would go and how fast, given that the king referred to the next election cycle, which would not be until 2015. Some women wondered aloud how they would be able to campaign for office when they were not even allowed to drive. And there is a long history of royal decrees stalling, as weak enactment collides with the bulwark of traditions ordained by the Wahhabi sect of Islam and its fierce resistance to change.
In his announcement, the king said that women would also be appointed to the Majlis Al-Shura, a consultative council that advises the monarchy on matters of public policy. But it is a toothless body that avoids matters of royal prerogative, like where the nation’s oil revenue goes.
“We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society,” the king said in an address to the Shura, noting during the five minutes he spent on the subject that senior religious scholars had endorsed the change.
Even under the new law, it was unclear how many women would take part in elections. In many aspects of life, men — whether fathers, husbands or brothers — prevent women from participating in legal activities. Public education for women took years to gain acceptance after it was introduced in 1960.
King Abdullah, the 87-year-old monarch who has a reputation for pushing reforms opposed by some of his half-brothers among the senior princes, said the monarchy was simply following Islamic guidelines, and that those who shunned such practices were “arrogant.”
Some analysts described the king’s choice as the path of least resistance. Many Saudis have been loudly demanding that all 150 members of the Shura be elected, not appointed. By suddenly putting women in the mix, activists feared, the government might use the excuse of integration to delay introducing a nationally elected council.
Political participation for women is also a less contentious issue than granting them the right to drive, an idea fiercely opposed by some of the most powerful clerics and princes. Even as the king made the political announcement, activists said that one prominent opponent of the ban, Najla al-Hariri, was being questioned Sunday for continuing her stealth campaign of driving.
Mrs. Hariri has been vociferous in demanding the right as a single mother who cannot afford one of the ubiquitous foreign chauffeurs to ferry her children to school. In recent weeks, a woman even drove down King Fahd Expressway, the main thoroughfare through downtown Riyadh, activists said.
Municipal elections in the kingdom are scheduled for Thursday, but the campaign is almost over and the king said that women would be able to nominate themselves and vote “as of the next session.” Introduced in 2005, the municipal councils have proved disappointing for those who had hoped they would create more political change.
Saudi Arabia remains an absolute monarchy. Fouad al-Farhan, once jailed briefly for his blog critical of the monarchy, led a slate of young Saudis from the cosmopolitan commercial capital of Jidda, determined to run in this year’s municipal elections to use whatever democratic openings they might afford for change. When the final list of candidates was posted weeks ago, his name had been unceremoniously removed — without anyone from the Jidda governorate run by Prince Khalid al-Faisal calling him to explain, Mr. Farhan said.
Despite the snail’s pace of change, women on Sunday were optimistic that the right to vote and run would give them leverage to change the measures, big and small, that hem them in.
“It is a good sign, and we have to take advantage of it,” said Maha al-Qahtani, one of the women who defied the ban on driving this year, said of the king’s announcement. “But we still need more rights.”
Women require the permission of a male sponsor, or “mahram,” to travel or undertake much of the commercial activity needed to run a business. They inhabit separate and often inferior spaces in restaurants, banks and health clubs, when they are allowed in at all.
Women were granted the right to their own national identification cards in 2001, the last major step that many hoped would lead to greater public freedom, but it failed to materialize. The Saudi judiciary, a conservative bastion, has yet to allow female lawyers, a new phenomenon, to argue in court. And a royal decree issued earlier this year that women should be allowed to work in public to sell lingerie has not been enacted — leaving Saudi women to buy their bras from male clerks, who mostly hail from South Asia.
Social media, heavily used in Saudi Arabia to start with, lit up with the announcement, with supporters endorsing it as “a great leap forward,” as one Twitter post put it. Some conservatives inveighed against it.
“Muslim scholars believe it is un-Islamic to allow women to participate in the Shura council,” wrote Mohammad al-Habdan, one such scholar.
In March, King Abdullah announced $130 billion in public spending over the next decade on measures like affordable housing, hoping for social peace after the first governments in the region were toppled. But uprisings have continued to challenge Arab governments.
Around the Persian Gulf, many citizens of the wealthy monarchies jealously track the rights and largess granted in neighboring states. On Saturday, 19 men and one woman were elected to a legislative body in the United Arab Emirates. Last summer, Qatar granted a notable 60 percent pay raise to all state employees.
Such regional and domestic pressures weighed on the Saudi monarchy to make some type of gesture. The one King Abdullah chose was less sweeping than many political activists had wanted, but one they hoped was a sign of more to come.
“It is not something that will change the life of most women,” said Fawaziah Bakr, an education professor in Riyadh, noting that she had just held a monthly dinner for professional women who were buzzing with excitement about the change.
“We are now looking for even more,” Mrs. Bakr said. “The Arab spring means that things are changing, that the political power has to listen to the people. The spring gave us a clear voice.”
Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.
This article, "Saudi Monarch Grants Women Right to Vote," originally appeared at The New York Times.