In perspective

As Saudi Arabian women celebrate the vote, the (brief) history of global suffrage must be examined

Only one nation remains that doesn’t allow women to vote


Last week, in two different cities in Saudi Arabia, Jamal Al-Saadi and Safinaz Abu Al-Shamat became the nation’s first female registered voters. “I was quite ready for this day,” Al-Saadi told the Saudi Gazette.

Both women told local media that they were “thoroughly prepared” when putting together the required documents so that nothing could stop them from voting on election day. They were ready to face oppressive attitudes, and with good reason – the nation, which ranked 130 out of 142 countries on the World Economic Forum global gender gap report in 2014, practices a strict interpretation of sharia law. Women are prohibited from driving and need permission from a male guardian to travel or work. They also need permission to obtain identification cards, which are required to register to vote.

In 2015, is Saudi Arabia behind the times?

When it comes to voting rights, not really. Yes, many Saudi Arabian laws and attitudes are restrictive, and yes, it was the second-to-last nation to holding out on allowing women to vote. But suffrage in self-governing countries only began in 1898, when New Zealand became the first to allow women to vote in parliamentary elections. Fewer decades have passed since the United States, who celebrates the 95th anniversary of women’s suffrage today, adopted the rule. Societies, democratic or otherwise, kept women from the polls worldwide until just 122 years ago.

“The times” are relatively new in regard to voting equality for women.

It happened fast: Australia, Finland, and Norway quickly followed New Zealand’s lead. From 1914 to 1939, women in 28 countries gained voting rights, including Canada, Germany, Russia, Thailand, Cuba, Kenya, the United States, Ecuador, and Sri Lanka. Pakistan, which was ranked 141 of 142 countries in the 2014 World Economic Forum global gender gap report, gave women the right to vote in 1952 (three decades before Mississippi ratified the Nineteenth Amendment). In the early 2000’s, the women of Oman and Kuwait were granted equal voting rights. And now, only Vatican City remains.

(The final hold out, Vatican City, employs complicated but – surprise! – still sexist voting laws. The cardinals who run the Roman Catholic Church are the only people allowed to vote for a new Pope. Religious doctrine prescribes that women cannot become cardinals, so no women, and most men, are kept from the polls in the Roman Catholic capital of the world.)

As countries passed election laws, restrictions have remained to keep those outside of a certain race and class from the polls. Even in 2015, when only one country on earth still denies them the right to vote, women around the world still face layered inequality that keeps them from exercising their rights fully, equally, and without persecution.

As Saudi Arabia’s women celebrate the experience of exercising their rights for the first time, the world must remember that word of law does not guarantee enforcement. Even in the United States, where “freedom for all” is touted on this 95th anniversary of women’s suffrage, Rosanell Eaton is still fighting for her vote in North Carolina — a state that failed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment until 1971. Global progress for women certainly comes with laws, but it will stay when attitudes progress.

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