King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia announced Sunday that women will now be permitted to vote and run for elected office. In addition, they will participate in the next session of the unelected, advisory Shura Council.

To American women, who’ve had the right to vote for nearly a century, the king’s proclamation may seem overdue and even quaint. In a country, however, where women still cannot drive cars and must have a male relative’s permission to travel abroad, hold a job or even undergo certain medical procedures, the announcement is momentous.

“Women’s voices will finally be heard,” said Wajeha al-Huwaider, a Saudi writer and women’s rights activist.

Saudi Arabia adheres to a strict version of Islamic law that enforces gender segregation, so women’s rights are seen as a litmus test of sorts. King Abdullah has a long record of supporting cautious political reforms — he built a new co-ed university and has been vocal in his support of women in the labor market — but conservative clerics and senior members of the ruling family have been resistant to liberalization.

“I believe this is a step to involve women in the public sphere. It is the top of the pyramid and a step in the direction for more decisions regarding women,” said Naila Attar, who organized a campaign calling for women’s involvement in the municipal council elections.

[Reuters]