RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Women in Saudi Arabia will not need a male guardian's approval to run or vote in municipal elections in 2015, when women will also run for office for the first time, a Saudi official said Wednesday.
The change signifies a step forward in easing the kingdom's restrictions against women, but it falls far short of what some Saudi reformers are calling for.
Shura Council member Fahad al-Anzi was quoted in the state-run al-Watan newspaper as saying that approval for women to run and vote came from the guardian of Islam's holiest sites, the Saudi king, and that therefore women will not need a male guardian's approval. The country's Shura Council is an all-male consultative body with no legislative powers.
Despite the historic decision by the king to allow women the right to participate in the country's only open elections, male-guardian laws in Saudi Arabia remain largely unchanged. Women cannot travel, work, study abroad, marry, get divorced, or gain admittance to a public hospital without permission from a male guardian. The country is guided by an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism.
Just the announcement that Saudi women can run for office and vote without permission will stir debate, said Hatoun al-Fasi, a women's-history professor in Riyadh.
It "could open doors to discussions that we have enough of already," Fasi said.
While King Abdullah has pushed for some changes on women's rights, he has been cautious not to push too hard against ultraconservative clerics, who have in the past challenged social reforms. The Saudi ruling family draws its legitimacy from the backing of the kingdom's religious establishment.
The male-guardian laws are particularly stifling for women, Saudi female activist Wajeha al-Hawidar said.
"These laws make the woman like a child in all aspects of her life," Hawidar said. "She is not dealt with as an adult with a fully developed brain."