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Women's voting rights in Saudi Arabia: a blow to medieval brands of Islam

The Saudi king's decree allowing women to vote in local elections shows the influence of the Arab Spring – and decline of a radical, repressive version of Islam.

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The status of women in Saudi Arabia has long been a bellwether of the power of Islamic fundamentalists worldwide. More freedom for Saudi women would mean less intolerance for certain brands of the Muslim faith.

Well, chalk one up for a tolerant Islam, the kind that respects universal values such as gender equality.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy announced that women would be allowed to vote in the kingdom’s very limited democracy – municipal elections – as well as run for local offices. And they could also become members of a body that advises the king.

The timing of this royal decree is telling.

It comes nine months after the start of the Arab Spring, which has so far toppled three dictators; six months after the killing of Osama bin Laden, whose goal was to control Islam’s holy sites in Saudi Arabia; and three months after an embarrassing protest in which dozens of Saudi women defied the fatwas of conservative clerics by driving cars.

King Abdullah’s edict granting limited political rights for women shows that ideas such as universal suffrage may yet win out against Saudi Arabia’s state-sponsored creed, known as Wahhabi Islam.

That 18th-century interpretation of Sunni Islam is based on a harsh, literalist version of the Quran. It sees control of women and the segregation of the sexes as essential to creating a pure Muslim society.

Its conservative clerics preach blind allegiance to authority and use their clout with the faithful to control the ruling Saud family. And they have pushed the regime to spend billions in promoting Wahhabism around the world.

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