INVOLVEMENT OF WOMEN IN POLITICS IN SAUDI ARABIA AND INDIA
Saudi Arabia and India stand at odds in regards to women’s participation in public life, especially in politics. Indian women have enjoyed the constitutional right to vote, run for public office, belong to a political party, and engage in political activism since its independence in 1950. On the other hand, Saudi Arabian women received such rights in politics in 2015. Nonetheless, there exists congruence in the fact that men dominate the political sphere while Indian women play second fiddle. The variation in the extent to which women in Saudi Arabia and India participate in politics can be understood in the context of religion, the constitution, and dynasty politics regarding Indira Gandhi. The paper comprises four parts with the first discussing women’s involvement in politics and facts on the potential benefits. Section two discusses the role of religion in designing the political space for women to participate in politics in Saudi Arabia and India. The third part explores the role of India’s progressive independence constitution and the basic law of governance. The last parts analyze the importance of dynasty politics in driving women’s success and failure in entry and ascendancy to higher political offices and offer concluding remarks.
Women Involvement in Politics
Equality and equity in the representation of women in politics globally are not proportional to their numerical strength. Therefore, they succumb to the male muscle and money and religion, which constrain the extent of their involvement in voting, membership to political parties, running for electoral office, and political activism. The marginalization of women from participating in these four levels of the political forum is critical to unlocking knowledge and data about reforms on the political rights of women. This section provides an in-depth exploration of the approaches or levels of Saudi Arabian and Indian women’s political participation.
Right to Vote
The right to vote is a democratic principle in which individuals exercise their free will to choose their representatives in the power structure of national governance. As such, it entails the right of women to be heard in the selection process of their governors. The right to vote is a means through which society can attain political and citizenship equality between the genders as well as a representative government. India has a long history regarding women’s right to vote since 1920 when the colonial power allowed women of means to vote. In 1950, the right to vote became a universal suffrage right under the new constitution whereby all Indians could participate in the political process through the ballot. In contrast, this right came about in 2011 in Saudi Arabia and took effect in the 2014 elections in which women were granted the right to vote in Municipal polls. However, the voting reforms fall short of the standards required for women to enjoy full participation in their civic duty due to the existence of barriers. Later, this parameter shall be used to gather relevant primary and secondary data on women’s right to vote in Saudi Arabia and India.
Membership in Political Parties
Women have a right to belong to a political party of their choice and actively participate in its agenda and contest internal party leadership seats. The presumption is that equality in citizenship and politics should expand to the entire spectrum of rights such that women can become members of political parties that represent their interests. However, Saudi Arabian and Indian women would need to start social movements to advocate for the membership of all citizens in political parties. Subsequently, the movements would identify a political party within which they can push their agenda. Therefore, membership to a political party should entail not only meeting the required number of women but also increase avenues for women to participate in decision-making.
Right to Run for Public Office
Women make not only good public servants but also great political leaders. Women have the potential to influence young girls to venture into political activism. However, the cost of running for political office is more substantial for women than men in Saudi Arabia and India. Moreover, the participation of women in the political processes through running for office is a marker of democratic maturity. There are instances in which political parties bridge the challenges for women through affirmative action to reduce the gap. As such, women may opt to contest competitively in general elections (within special confines of an interest group) or rely on affirmative action.
Women’s Engagement in Political Activism
Activism is part of civic engagement whereby members push for the mainstreaming of gender issues in public policy. As such, activism has been used successfully in championing for gender rights in the public space. For instance, women actively engage public authorities through the feminist movement to change power structures within society. Moreover, the issues that feminists campaign for through political activism include equal pay and their right to vote. Therefore, activism creates the necessary pressure for state agencies to act in implementing change. These efforts are instrumental in bridging the gender gap in the public and private sphere for Saudi Arabian and Indian women.
Women’s Participation in Politics in Saudi Arabia and India
The participation of women in politics varies in India and Saudi Arabia. However, there are common factors that play a significant role in either enhancing or demeaning women’s involvement in the political arena. This part discusses how these factors produce either similar or different political outcomes for women in Saudi Arabia and India.
The Role of Religion in Influencing Women Involvement in Politics
Saudi Arabia’s and India’s public and social life are mostly defined by the different religious interests that find their way to public life, especially in politics. Religion assigns gender roles between men and women in society, which ends up with unequal power distribution. According to research by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), gender roles in society have a limiting factor on women’s participation in politics. Paxton and Kunovic indicate that the “Interpretation of the effects of region or religion stress that they reflect the attitudes and beliefs of a nation.” Therefore, the diverse appreciation of women in politics in India and Saudi Arabia depends on how it shapes public attitudes towards women and their reception in the political sphere.
India is a secular nation that separates religion and the state; however, religion plays a significant role in its democratic processes. Amendments to the 1950 constitution declared India a secular state in 1976. Nonetheless, the nation is also religious because the government protects and treats all religious interests equally. As a result, the political process of elections and the formation of coalition governments at both the national and state levels involve the aspect of religion. Moreover, the constitution guarantees the protection of minorities such as women and other religions in Article 30 of the Constitution. As such, the constitution is the primary document upon which mobilization concerning religion takes place.
Women in India have been engaged in activism intending to increase their public appeal and promote a skewed Hindu religious identity. During the Ayodhya movement in the 1990s, women participated in activism but played secondary gender roles. Also, women participated in political activism to demand the demolition of the Babri Mosque. Moreover, Indian women have led demonstrations in Muslim neighborhoods to champion their narrow goals while preventing the police from protecting the vulnerable Muslim women from attacks by male Hindus. Therefore, the political participation of women in India was crafted along the lines of religious identity.
Furthermore, religion significantly influences the participation of Indian women in politics because of the influence of goddesses that dominate Hindu religious mythology (or belief). Often, women politicians in India use the images of gods and goddesses to project their caring nature and increase the Dalit’s pride in Uthra Pradesh. Indira Gandhi stated that Kanshi Ram was her mentor during her political party campaigns. Gandhi used the image of Bharat Mata to rely on the historical significance of the goddess who represented the mother figure of India. During the 1975 elections, she presented herself as a caring mother goddess to the Indian electorate thus increasing her appeal in the context of protecting India and earlier political developments. In addition, Gandhi was depicted as the vengeful goddess (Durga) who would avenge against Pakistan incursion into India even after the 1971 split. Therefore, she invoked the names of goddesses, whom men also worship, thus gaining overwhelming support during the election.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is an Islamic republic whereby the Ulama’s powers run alongside other legislative and administrative institutions such as the judiciary and executive. Consequently, Ulama wields a lot of influence in public and social life and affects the pace of reforms as citizens fear a backlash. Le Ranard indicates that “a model of the Saudi woman as pious and virtuous, modest, educated, financially comfortable, and devoted to her family has been promoted by the state.” Therefore, women play secondary roles in the context of Sufism within the Wahabi Islamic sect. Categorically, the Ulama’s control over public values has been diluted significantly through equal education for all. Notably, education created a sensitive public with access to information from the outside world who value freedoms. Therefore, even though the Saudi state has made many declarations for promoting equality, the government subjugates women under the male guardian laws that make them seek alternatives whereby their rights are upheld. As a result, Sahad Al-Muhameed ran away from home to protest against male guardianship laws aimed at protecting the women’s piety. When asked about it, she stated that “I now live the way I want to,”… “I live in a good place that has women’s rights.” Therefore, the Saudi Arabian society does not respect women’s rights.
In 2012, Mohammed Bin Salman allowed women to vote for the first time in the nation’s history. In addition, Bin Salman instructed women to engage in the political process by running for elective seats in Municipal Council. The government pronounced reforms aimed at including women in the Shura Council and allowing them to run for public offices as foretasted. Furthermore, the state introduced reforms that would increase women’s participation in specific sections of security such as passport issuance, civil defense, and trade, for example, in the Ministry of Trade and Commerce. Moreover, Bin Salman introduced reforms that allowed women to drive for the first time after many years of agitation.
An interview between Sarah Aziza and Janine Jackson (J.J) of Lobe Log, Aziza expressed her views on women drivers, which places doubts in the following words.
“J.J: …What should we know about bin Salman as liberator of Saudi women?”
S.A: “Yeah, I would say that it is not the full story. It is true that there are some women—particularly who come from liberal families, middle- or upper-class families—who are enjoying the benefit of these limited reforms, the increased flexibility for women in the workforce. And the ability to drive was no small thing, symbolically or practically.”
“J.J: When you wrote about this in 2018, you said that one activist said that maybe the crackdown has something to do with the regime not wanting the lifting of the ban to be seen as a reward for that activism. They’d prefer it be presented as a gift from the king.”
“S.A: Absolutely, that’s been one of the themes of bin Salman’s reign, is this absolute top-down, unilateral approach, that any rights or privileges granted to his subjects must be seen as coming directly from him, and a product of his will and his will alone, and that there are no channels, there’s no two-way channel between the people and the government, that they’re not to have expectations of activism or organizing as bringing about any changes or demands. This is not a conversation. This is a patriarchal, top-down granting or bequeathing of rights as he sees fit.”
The interview reveals that reforms on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are not only minor but also marred with several shortcomings. Foremost, the right to drive and other freedoms given to women in Saudi Arabia are insignificant compared to the major contention in the name of male guardian laws. Nonetheless, the argument between King Aziz and the Ulama shows his attempt to balance between the women’s and public’s interests. Secondly, the reforms are presented as a reward to Saudi Arabian women from the King as opposed to an entitlement under the basic law. In addition, the interview indicates that the spectrum of rights purportedly given to Saudi Arabian women mainly applies to the elite womenfolk who have an education and a middle-class lifestyle. Similarly, allowing women to drive, among other reforms, is essential but is mostly aimed at enticing the Western government to gain their global approval. Therefore, it is hard to believe in the genuine intention of the Saudi leadership to introduce reforms that expand the socio-political and legal rights of women.
The Role of Dynasties in the Political Process in India and Saudi Arabia
One of the political dynasties that have ruled India is the Gandhi family. The presumed role played by the Gandhi family is the election of the first woman Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. Dynasties involve the entry into politics following the footsteps of a family member. Accordingly, Indira reportedly learned the trade from her father but indicated in an interview that he did not mentor her. International businesswoman Bina Lalwani interviewed Indira in 1982 before the former Prime Minister’s assassination.
“Q. As a young lady, did you ever aspire to be head of the country?”
“A. Certainly not. I’d never dreamt of that. There was no question, you know, as we didn’t think we’d be free in our lifetime.”
The interview clarifies that Indira’s father was not part of her mentorship process and that she never envisioned herself as a leader. In contrast, other dynasties in South East Asia mentor their members; hence the region has had many women Prime Ministers. Sonia Gandhi led the Indian Congress Party after her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, was assassinated. In addition, Mehboob Mufti became the Chief Minister in Kashmir where she followed in the footsteps of her father. Furthermore, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan holds a post once held by her mother. Therefore, dynastic politics influence aspiring leaders to emulate former frontrunners in their households without necessarily mentoring them.
On the other hand, dynastic politics in Saudi Arabian tend to favor men over women family members. The Saudi society, including the royal family, is segregated against women that comprise its membership. As a result, it is difficult for women to champion their rights in the nation. Nonetheless, the advent of information technology has enabled women in Saudi Arabia to publicly and actively advocate for their rights. For instance, online activism (‘Women Drive’) attracted global attention to the plight of women in Saudi Arabia following the denial of their fundamental rights. As such, women were able to mobilize their collective action through the internet to bring about the desired change in their social lives. The virtual world is ordinarily a safe place for women to engage in activism with limited government interference. Therefore, the virtual space remains the only place where women and other opposition activists can exercise their political rights freely in Saudi Arabia.
Despite immense success in dynastic families in India, other households have risen to fight for their political space based on the Indian Constitution. The dynasties mainly apply to few elite politicians from prominent families; hence few women enjoy the privileges provided by their family name. As such, the number of women in the Indian parliament was merely 12 percent of the entire membership of Congress as of 2014. Therefore, India’s progress in increasing women’s participation in political activities is insignificant. In Saudi Arabia, the patriarchal society vests the rights of succession on male family members. As a result, it is unlikely for a woman to ascend to the throne as a Saudi queen. The Saudi dynastic politics favor men more than women meaning that princesses in the royal household cannot rise to leadership in the current political order. Besides, the nation has few women engaging in active politics except at the Municipal Councils. Women involvement in the Shura Council stood at 20 percent in 2013. As such, women leadership in the mainstream Saudi Arabian political context is a far-fetched vision.
Political Support for Women in Politics
The common ground for both India and Saudi Arabia is that pronouncements and constitutional guarantees in favor of women remain lip-service at best. Such an assertion emanates from the fact that they are yet to produce tangible results in increasing women participation in the political space. In India, the number of women in national legislatures is below 20 percent, indicating that attitudes about women politicians remain a challenge. Studies from 2003 demonstrate that the number of women in the national legislature was only nine percent. The number of women representatives increased by only three percent in 2014. Despite their absence in the top crème of political leadership, women in India have been active in the lower echelons of politics such as voting, mobilization, and activism. While women in India have official alternatives to exercise their political freedoms, Saudi Arabian women depend on the generosity of the state leadership to create political spaces for them.
India may be progressive theoretically in guaranteeing women’s political rights, but there exist challenges. Foremost is the lack of affirmative action that guarantees quotas for women representatives in the legislative assemblies at the national and state level. Second, political parties are yet to agree on the need to give women more political tickets during elections so that there is a fair representation of women in elective posts. Also, India’s political parties have entrenched the culture of political patriarchy as well as caste, gender, and class systems that bar women from contesting in elections. Moreover, women are constrained in financial support to advance their political careers, a factor that limits their chances for both contesting and winning elections. Therefore, despite India’s constitution guaranteeing women equal political rights with men, other moderating factors hinder the realization of these basic entitlements.
The women leadership gap between India’s and Saudi Arabia’s political arena is wide given India’s history of women in the political realm compared to the former. Dynasties have been significant in catapulting women to political leadership in a male-dominated society. For instance, Indira and Sonia, among others, were thrust into political leadership courtesy of their family names. Nonetheless, the use of Hindu Mythology and related figures is credited for increasing Indira Gandhi’s appeal among the citizens during the 1970s elections. Even though she wanted to dissociate herself from the mentorship of her father, dynastic politics played a significant role in her rise to political power.
On the other hand, women leadership in Saudi Arabia is a 21st Century phenomenon. The efficacy of women leadership in Saudi Arabia or the expansion of women’s democratic freedoms is constrained by the same government that purports to value their worth rather than provide for and protect their human rights. Notably, Saudi society is patriarchal and resigns women to traditional roles and expectations of religion without considering their interests. The ruling authorities in Saudi Arabia view women’s rights as a privilege and kind gesture to the chagrin of the Ulama. As such, it is difficult to achieve progress for women to attain their fully-fledged rights that establish equality with men in the socio-political context. Therefore, while religion has positively impacted women participation in politics in India, it limits the same freedoms in Saudi Arabia. Indira used deities to garner massive public support and win the election in the late 1970s. Moreover, the Ajodhya movement in India involved numerous women activists who played a significant role in advocating for the destruction of the Babri Mosque. Nonetheless, India lags in increasing women’s political participation despite the nation’s history of advocating for women’s political rights. In Saudi Arabia, the government may have ceded limited ground for women, but it is insufficient; thus, there is the need for growth to establish itself as a state where women’s rights are upheld in the socio-political and economic spheres of life.
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 Madhu Kishwar, “Women and politics: Beyond quotas,” Economic and Political Weekly (1996), 2867.
 Joseph Fishkin, “Equal Citizenship and the Individual Right to Vote,” Ind. LJ 86 (2011), 1296-1297.
 Kishwar, “Women in Politics,” 2868.
 Xanthe Ackerman and Christina Asquith, “Women Haven’t won in Saudi Arabia-Yet,” TIME (December 15, 2015). http://time.com/4149557/saudi-arabia-elections-women-vote/>
 Kishwar, “Women in Politics,” 2867.
 David E. Campbell and Christina Wolbrecht, “See Jane run: Women politicians as role models for adolescents,” The Journal of Politics 68, no. 2 (2006), 245.
 Praveen Rai, “Electoral participation of women in India: Key determinants and barriers,” Economic and political weekly (2011), 48.
 Theresa Man Ling Lee, “Rethinking the personal and the political: Feminist activism and civic engagement,” Hypatia 22, no. 4 (2007), 169.
 Lynn A. Stacheli, “Publicity, privacy, and women’s political action,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 14, no. 5 (1996), 601.
 Francisco O. Ramirez, Yasemin Soysal, and Suzanne Shanahan, “The changing logic of political citizenship: Cross-national acquisition of women’s suffrage rights, 1890 to 1990,” American sociological review (1997), 740.
 Scott Desposato and Barbara Norrander, “The gender gap in Latin America: Contextual and individual influences on gender and political participation,” British Journal of Political Science39, no. 1 (2009), 143.
 Pamela Paxton and Sheri Kunovich, “Women’s political representation: The importance of ideology.” Social Forces 82, no. 1 (2003), 88.
 Paxton and Kunovich, “Women’s political representation,” 92.
 Zoya Hasan, “Gender, religion, and democratic politics in India,” Third world quarterly 31, no. 6 (2010): 940.
 Hasan, “Gender, religion, and democratic politics in India,” 941.
 Ibid., 257.
 Ibid., 947.
 Julia Szivak, “Goddess-Woman: Devi Cults and Traditional Roles of Women in India, Trans Steven C.” (Museum of Fine Arts- Ferenc Hopp Museum of Asiatic Arts, Budapest, 2018), 199.
 Szivak, “Goddess-Woman,” 200.
 Ibid., 257.
 Amélie Le Renard, “Only for women: Women, the state, and reform in Saudi Arabia,” The Middle East Journal 62, no. 4 (2008), 614.
 Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, “Cultural obstacles to equal representation.” Journal of Democracy 12, no. 3 (2001), 127.
 Norris and Inglehart, “Cultural obstacles to equal representation,” 617.
 Ben Hubbard and Richard C. Paddock, “Saudi Women, Tired of Restraints, Finds Ways to Flee,” The New York Times (Jan 11, 2019), par 4. < https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/11/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-women-flee.html> Accessed May 1, 2019.
 Safaa Rajkhan, “Women in Saudi Arabia: Status, rights, and limitations,” (University of Washington Bothell, Master’s Thesis 2014), 15.
 Rajkhan, “Women in Saudi Arabia,” 16.
 Janine Jackson, “Interview with Sarah Aziza on Saudi Repression of Women,” Lobe Log (Feb 15, 2019), par. 3. Accessed <https://lobelog.com/interview-with-sarah-aziza-on-saudi-repression-of-women/>
 Jackson, “Interview with Sarah Aziza,” par. 4.
 Ibid., par. 10.
 Ibid., par. 11.
 Szivak, “Goddess-Woman,” 194.
 Bina Lalwani, “I have Always Done What I Wanted to Do,” India Today (Updated Sept. 11, 2014), par 11. https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/interview/story/19821130-i-have-always-done-what-i-wanted-to-do-indira-gandhi-772423-2013-07-31.
 Lalwani, “I have Always Done What I Wanted to Do,” par 12.
 Ibid., par 13.
 Ibid., par 14.
 Szivak, “Goddess-Woman,” 194.
 Serpil T. Yuce et al., “Bridging women rights networks: Analyzing interconnected online collective actions.” Journal of Global Information Management (JGIM) 22, no. 4 (2014), 2.
 Caroline Montagu, Civil society in Saudi Arabia: The power and challenges of association. (Chatham House for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2015), 17.
 Szivak, “Goddess-Woman,” 193.
 Rajkhan, “Women in Saudi Arabia” 16.
 Paxton and Kunovich, “Women’s political representation,” 89.
 Ibid., 110.
 Szivak, “Goddess-Woman,” 193.
 Rai, “Electoral participation of women in India,” 49.
 Ibid., 50.
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