‘Studying abroad more important than voting rights’

On Saturday, 12 December, women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to vote for the first time. It’s a step in the right direction, but Saudi students in Groningen feel that opportunities for women to study abroad are much more important.

It seems revolutionary: in a country that is often associated with the oppression of women, those women are being allowed to vote in municipal elections for the first time in history. It is the fulfilment of a promise that former king Abdullah made in 2011.

But according to Maha*, a Saudi medical student in Groningen, the change is not all that revolutionary. According to her, other developments are taking place that are much more important to the people of the Asian kingdom. ‘It’s mainly about awareness, which is generated by access to social media and seeing how things can be different’, says Maha. ‘One of the best ways to accomplish this is by encouraging Saudi students to study abroad.’


‘Voting rights constitute more of a symbolic legislation for the outside world’
Abu Qaswara*, Maha’s countryman who also studies in Groningen, completely agrees with her. ‘I think it’s fantastic that women in Saudi Arabia are allowed to vote, but I don’t think it will engender any great changes’, says Qaswara. ‘In our country, not having the right to vote is not so much seen as oppression but rather a cultural issue.’ He does not think women acquiring voting rights will change these ‘cultural morals’.

Maha says the Saudi people do not really care about elections anyway. ‘They have a passive attitude. We’re not taking a lot of initiative ourselves to find out what we can achieve with these elections’, she says. ‘But the fact that the government isn’t really providing any information certainly doesn’t help.’

Symbolic legislation

Mineke Bosch, professor of modern history at the RUG who specialises in women’s rights, shares the opinion that Saudi women getting the right to vote is not as revolutionary as it might seem. ‘It’s true that the acquisition of voting rights often means an important step in the direction of equal rights for men and women in a society’, says Bosch. ‘But keeping in mind the political system in Saudi Arabia and the way women acquired those voting rights, that equality will not necessarily be the outcome.’

With this, Bosch alludes to the fact that Saudi women have not had to fiercely fight for their voting rights. According to the women’s rights expert, there are other issues that the female half of the population thinks is much more important, such as the right to get divorced. ‘To me, that indicates that this is not so much about improving the position of women, but that voting rights constitute more of a symbolic legislation for the outside world.’

*At the request of the interviewees, the names Maha and Abu Qaswara are fictional.