By now you may have heard that Saudi Arabia has taken a substantial step toward progress. They have held the first election that included women in the history of the 84 year old Kingdom.
Having the blessing of the previous religious leaders, the advancement was made this month (December 2015). Currently it is reported that at least 17 women were elected. Some results may not be final, but clearly more than a dozen women were elected to local council seats.
Noticeable changes started a couple years ago. King Abdullah even set a type of ‘quota’ for women, establishing that they should hold 20% of the seats ‘appointed’ to the Consultative Council). This advisory body of 150 members has limited power but can propose laws, and during the last 2 years, a couple dozen women have been added to the roster.
But the landmark change is now. In December more than 130,000 women registered to vote and almost 1,000 female candidates were on the ballot. Now this should even make US women sit up and express some awe. These Saudi women had roadblocks at which we in the west would be aghast. ID and residency documentation requirements were onerous to establish, although that is something some US women CAN relate to with recent voter ID requirements. Worse, these Saudi women were forbidden to speak to male voters and could have no personal photos in public materials. Also, don’t forget that women are hardly encouraged to drive around freely as an option for campaigning. And while the King may support this reform, the Kingdom’s most senior religious leader, Grand Mufti said this vote was “opening up the door to evil.” Now, those are some major roadblocks.
Unfortunately, before we get too excited for the headway of these sisters generally caught in severe social conservativism, be assured that these positions they have won are not for lawmaking, nor do they come with national powers. The seats are mostly planning and developments roles – vital to a community, but not with widespread authority. Still, you might reflect that progress has to start somewhere.
Although these women have already made their influence felt (and proven themselves) in families, mosques, social communities, universities and dozens of other places, their roles have often been rather hidden. And while elections aren’t ‘hidden’ there, they aren’t exactly the most open.
Still, while we celebrate their progress in Saudi Arabia, we might not be too smug about elections for women in the US. With few exceptions, I think it is fair to say that women have a level playing field in US politics AFTER they are elected. You caught the point, right? While women here have few road blocks to govern once they are in office, GETTING THERE is a different story.
There are many reasons for this disparity between men and women and some groups (like Close the Gap, Emily’s List, or Vote-Run-Lead) make every effort to help overcome this lack of parity in the number of elected women. I would like to emphasize just one of the reasons that equality is missing – how our election ‘structure’ works against women.
I mentioned that the Saudi King developed ‘quotas’ for women (as have some other countries). I would not personally support that approach, despite the fact that it does accomplish the goal. For elections, I just want what Title-9 did for sports – START to level the playing field. Additionally, in the US, the word ‘quota’ comes close to vulgar language in the minds of many (particularly older white men in power). So, let’s say skip the quota path.
Then what is the solution? A clue lies in the fact that the US ranks 95th in world of 189 nations for having fair numbers of women in office in proportion to their segment of the population. Read that again. It means that 94 nations do better than we do at electing women. If you don’t already know that number, you might wonder if it could possibly be true. Sadly, it is.
Why the difference? I will paraphrase the founder of the League of Women Voters, Carrie Chapman Catt, who once said that the answer to improving our standards of women in power is Proportional Representation (PR). That is a major difference between the US and those 94 other countries doing better than we do at sharing elected positions with women.
Without getting into a bunch of details, in simple terms PR is basically a change in how a ballot is designed and how many people we elect (and govern in an area) at once. The bottom line is that PR would adopt governing bodies that look more like the population and at the same time allow women a truly fair shake at winning. And while not requiring (possibly unfair) quotas, would most likely elect more women.
Besides lamenting how much work Saudi women have ahead of them, remember that number – 95th – and our own standing in the world. If you would like to add your voice to this goal of greater equality, sign the pledge calling for parity for women by 2020 at Representation2020.org: from Suffrage to Parity. (Pledge found at ‘Take Action’ tab)
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