Saudi businesswomen went to the polls to help choose a new board of directors for the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. For the first time, the list of candidates included women: seventeen women were among the seventy-one people competing for twelve seats on the board. Saudi men voted on separate days from women.
There are an estimated two-thousand eight-hundred businesses registered in women's names at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. But turnout among the businesswomen was low. Still, many Saudi women saw the vote as a victory for women, especially after women were barred from municipal elections earlier this year.
Lubna al-Ghalayini is a human resources consultant in Jeddah. She told the New York Times newspaper, "This vote is extremely important not just because women are being allowed to vote and to run, but also because it's a recognition of the role of women in the economy."
The U.S. State Department's latest human rights report says that Saudi women "have few political or social rights" and are not treated as equal members of society. They may not legally drive motor vehicles and are restricted in their use of public facilities when men are present. Saudi women must enter city buses by separate rear entrances and sit in specially designated sections.
Women risk arrest by Saudi Arabia's religious police by riding in a vehicle driven by a male who is not an employee or a close male relative. In the face of this repressive reality, the Saudi government has committed itself to expanding the role of women in public life.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faysal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Jeddah. Ms. Rice said, "I thought it was remarkable that we sat in this room together, talked in detail about human potential, talked about how to enhance political participation, how to enhance the empowerment of women."
The United States considers the rights of women to be fundamental human rights, and the empowerment of women is integral to U.S. foreign policy. In a speech in Saudi Arabia earlier this year, Secretary of State Rice said that governments must protect "certain basic rights for all their citizens," including the freedom to educate children, both boys and girls. "Half a democracy," said Ms. Rice, "is not a democracy."
The preceding was an editorial reflecting the views of the United States Government.