A Century After Susan B. Anthony, Saudi Arabia Lets Women Vote

San Jose Mercury News.

American troubadour Bob Dylan warned in his 1964 classic that “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” His lyrics quickly proved prophetic here at home, but change has come slowly to some corners of the world.

Come it has, finally, ever so slightly, to Saudi Arabia — a Middle East kingdom has been ruled with an iron hand by a royal family even more change averse than the average baby boomer. Last weekend, for the first time, women were allowed to vote in local elections — and to run for office! Imagine. Only about a century after Susan B. Anthony and her co-conspirators won the right to vote in America.

About 20 Saudi women won local government seats, and we hope they enjoy their elite status: There were about 7,000 candidates for the openings, 979 of them women. They won less than 1 percent of the open seats that, in this monarchy, really don’t hold much power anyway.

Still. For a country that demands most women be fully covered if they go out of the house, forbids them to drive cars, stones them to death for adultery and subjects them to guardianship laws that give men control over decisions from travel to education to marriage — not bad.

As Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu reminds, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

And this is no baby step. Considering that female candidates were not allowed to directly address voters of the opposite sex and campaigned almost exclusively online, mostly through social media, the results were amazing.

The victories were scattered throughout the country. The conservative capital of Riyadh saw four women elected; the Eastern Province, where minority Shiites are concentrated, elected two; Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city, Jiddah, also elected two women, as did one of the most conservative regions, Qassim.

We can only imagine what motivated the royal rulers. It is a family that famously, for a time, was close to Osama bin Laden.

But its leaders always have been savvy. They know they have the oil that Western nations want, and that has created uneasy friendships. It has caused American presidents, Democrat and Republican, and other Western leaders to hold their tongues in the face of human rights violations that would be condemned in nations we held to a 21st century standard.

The point of that wonderful old Dylan song is that once the times start a-changin’, there’s no turning back. The Taliban, Al Qaeda and now the Islamic State are out to prove that wrong. But perhaps this small shift by the Saudis tiptoeing into the 1900s will be the start of a counter movement.

We can hope. If only for the sake of the women.

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