Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Saudi King grands voting rights to women - An analysis

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character" - Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Forty eight years are over after Martin Luther King Jr first delivered his famous 'I have a dream' speech. Unfortunately, we are still struggling to find a solution for this problem. More or less inequality still prevails across the world - based on gender, birth, religion, caste, race etc.

I am not saying that all the people in the world are equal - its not and it should not be; after all we are not machines!!! Moreover, nature itself doesn’t like equality, that’s why we can't see any nature made coffee or tea plantations. Nature prefers diversity - that why deer, monkey, snake, crocodile are living in the same jungle where lion, tiger, hyena lives.

Each and every one of us are different, everyone has different interests, choices, targets etc. Some people may be able force their choice on an entire community for some time, they may even be able to force their choice a small group for ever but nobody will be able to force their choice on an entire community forever. If they are forcing their wishes on an entire section [for example 'banning women from work'], it will not only bring down the productivity but also results in resentment. That’s exactly what the principle of comparative advantage says - even if one country is more efficient in the production of all goods it can still gain by trading with another country - which is relatively more efficient in one particular good.

We all know this, we know about equality and its significance in society. But, when it comes to caste, race, religion, gender etc, somewhere we are losing thoughts. There is a sea of difference between a person who is superior to another because of his knowledge and a person who is superior to other due to his/her caste, religion, race etc. In the former situation he/she acquired the qualities due to his hard work and dedication, in the later case he/she got his position because of mere chance of birth - which is not at all in our control!!! After all we can't decide in which race, country, caste and religion we need to born.

So what is the point of differentiating a person based on criteria which doesn't has anything to do with his/her character, intellect, thoughts etc?

It is in this background we have to think about the recent declaration of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to grant women the right to vote and run in future municipal elections. A great leap forward, considering Saudi's conservative credentials. 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.

Right to vote and participate in elections are fundamental rights of citizen in a democratic environment. This will increase the leverage of common man [or woman] in the administration and government will be more responsible for the welfare of the people. After all the administration has to consider the views of people who elected them. In this way King's decision to give more opportunities to women is certainly an admirable move.

Recent Arab spring showed the power of women, they came and participated in large numbers (Although no one is sure about what will happen, if fundamentalists hijacked the movement) - an indicator that they can swim through the middle east politics if fundamentalists are kept at bay. As far as Shura council is considered, it will give an additional platform to express their views (not more than that unless some woman member from royal family come forward and decides to participate).

But it raises many more questions too - Is it enough? The two main characteristics of most of the Middle East countries are - 1. Run by monarchies 2. Dependent on Oil Revenue (In another way independent of tax revenue from common man).

Consider the first case - as the countries are not democratic, people's opinion will have less effect on policy making and governance. Administration doesn’t have to go back to the people - asking one more term - in every four or five years. Even if monarchy created some sort of democratic institution, election process will have little effect unless the elected government has some significant role in decision making process.

The second case is related to oil revenue. Enormous foreign currency reserves coming through oil routes will erase the dependency of administration on taxation. We may think that it is good as they don't have to pay tax. Unfortunately there is darker side for this problem.

If I reversed the famous slogan 'No taxation without representation' of American Revolution, it will read like this - 'No representation without Taxation'. Isn't it equally true? If the government is not depend on the tax revenue from the public, people will have less say on how administration uses it.

According to Aristotle - "If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in government to the utmost."

Yet the long standing demand for the right to drive is yet to be solved and so as the percentage of women in workforce and judiciary.

According to DW-World report - "Saudi women are currently required either to hire male chauffeurs or rely on male family members for transportation and are not allowed to travel unaccompanied if they are under 45 years old."

In conclusion, I can say that King Abdulla's decision to grant some more rights to women is certainly a great step. This will bring more women to the political stage. But will it create any big difference in the grass root level? Will the women from the lower end of society be able to come forward and join with the women from elites to participate in various discussions in the councils? Will the fundamentalists allow all these to be implemented as intended? I have serious doubts regarding to the first and third questions. Even if answer to all the questions are positive, little will change if the council doesn't have a say in nation's budget, policy making and oil revenue.


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