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Saudi king gives women right to vote

Sep 25, 2011, 10:25 a.m.
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud attends prayers on the first day of Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, at Al-Safa Palace in Mecca August 30, 2011. REUTERS/Saudi Press Agency/Handout

SCRUTINY

In a country where even cautious change is bitterly opposed by conservative clerics and some members of the ruling family, women's rights have drawn scrutiny at home and from abroad.

The king did not address broader issues of women's social rights, such as the ban on issuing driving licenses to women, which prompted small protests this summer by women who defied the authorities and drove.

Women in Saudi Arabia must also have written approval from a male guardian -- a father, husband, brother or son -- to leave the country, work or even undergo certain medical operations.

In 2002, the Saudi religious police shocked the nation and the world when they prevented schoolgirls from evacuating a burning building because they were not wearing full Islamic attire. Fifteen died.

King Abdullah has earned a reputation as a cautious reformer since he started to run the kingdom as de facto regent during the illness of his predecessor, King Fahd.

He built a new university for students of both sexes and encouraged women to participate more in the labor market. But he did little to alter the political system, which placed absolute power in the hands of a single generation of brothers since his father, state founder Abdulaziz, died in 1953.

After entering the Shura Council chamber leaning heavily on a cane on Sunday, Abdullah read only a section of a prepared statement that was later released in full by the authorities.

Tarek Fadaak, a member of the Shura Council and former chairman of the Jeddah city council, said: "The royal decision will not be challenged... but what remains to be seen is how these directives will be applied."

Naila Attar, who organized a campaign for women to be allowed to participate in the municipal council elections, said the move marked the beginning of progress.

"Despite the issue of the effectiveness of these councils, women's involvement in them was necessary. Maybe after women join there will be other changes," she said. "It is the top of the pyramid and a step in the direction for more decisions regarding women."

(Writing by Angus McDowall and Reed Stevenson; Editing by Peter Graff)

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