By Josh Treacher
The recent policy change in Saudi Arabia, allowing women to vote and run in municipal elections, has been easily compared to women's suffrage across the rest of the world. However, these rights have been rightfully won by women today due to reasons completely unique to the cultural, religious and technological conditions of Saudi Arabia that have developed through history. The only similarity in fact that can be clearly drawn, is that women had to campaign at great lengths to win this right.
According to Sven Steinmo, historical institutionalists focus on how institutions affect political action based on their historical context. In the case of Saudi Arabia, which has been a strongly Muslim country since the 7th century, conservative interpretations of the Qur'an have led to a patriarchal culture of 'protecting' women. It could be argued that religion in the context of Saudi Arabia has played a very strong role in delaying women's right to vote, as both the government and the monarchy continue to intertwine traditional religious values with both formal (political rights) and informal institutions (e.g. cultural allowances).
Social media as a tool for communicating the realities of Saudi women to the rest of the world alongside pressure for societal change- brought about by the recent Arab Spring- may also have strongly influenced the decision to allow women to vote. And as the monarchy's opinion of Saudi affairs heavily influences government policy, the fact that women's suffrage has only been supported by the monarchy in the last few years adds weight to the list of institutional changes that have influenced this recent political action.
This change could simply be a result of a sociological institutionalist's perspective- being that the decision to allow women to enter the political stage may have simply been a perception that Saudi women are satisficers- acting habitually rather than to maximize self-interest. However whether this is an appropriate response to outcries for social change or not will be proven by how far Saudi women will continue to demand it now that they finally have the traditional, political means to do so.