The granting of the right to vote to women in Saudi Arabia is a wonderful leap forward for democracy. Yet it has induced a weird concoction of cynicism and shoulder-shrugging indifference amongst the so-called sisterhood in the West, including in the upper echelons of human-rights groups who normally campaign for this kind of breakthrough. Amnesty International sniffily says "it is no great achievement to be one of the last countries in the world to grant women the vote". Both Amnesty and the even more high-minded Human Rights Watch are serving up generous dollops of doom about this big shift in Saudi life, warning that having the vote is no "guarantee of rights" for Saudi women. Meanwhile, female members of the liberal commentariat pump out articles with headlines like "Why women in Saudi Arabia have a long way to go yet".
Why are so many people so down on this development? Of course, the "democracy" which, from 2015, Saudi women will be allowed to take part in is far from perfect; like men, they will only get to vote in occasional municipal elections for advisers to the religious Shura Council. And yes, Saudi women's lives will not magically transform overnight. In Britain in 1918, female suffrage was first only granted to women over the age of 30; it wasn't until 1928 that women got the vote on equal terms with men. And it took many more years, decades in fact, for women to become full participants in society. Yet nobody, surely, would look back at the breakthroughs won by the Suffragettes in the 1910s and say, "Well, it was a big fat waste of time giving women the right to vote when many of them couldn't aspire to anything more than housewifing drudgery". Why do we say such things in relation to Saudi Arabia?
The reason the granting of the vote to Saudi women is a potentially brilliant development is because it implicitly recognises that these women are political beings, individuals with opinions and the right to express them (albeit in a limited fashion). Having recognised that fact, the Saudi authorities will now find it increasingly hard to justify and sustain the repression of women in other areas of social and political life. If Saudi rulers think they can grant women the right to vote and leave it at that - that there will be no further pressure for more reforms - then they must be even more insulated from reality and ignorant of history than we thought. History shows again and again that political concessions, even big ones, do not leave people satisfied, but rather fuel their aspirations for a better and freer life; they potentially make people angrier, in a good way, rather than happier.
So why is there so much human-rights harrumphing and feministic miserabilism towards events in Saudi Arabia? It is because this dramatic political shift has been brought about by the Arab people themselves rather than by polite, white-skinned, aching-hearted human-rights activists in the West. The granting of the right to vote to women in Saudi Arabia demonstrates, very clearly, that big political changes are only ever won by a people taking action for themselves; they are never won through the uber-patronising, often pity-driven campaigning of concerned letter-writers in London or Washington. Arabs have achieved more in nine months than an army of external Amnesty activists achieved in more than 30 years: they have toppled authoritarians, won the release of political prisoners, won the unbanning of political parties, and have even helped to bring about female suffrage in Saudi Arabia. Western observers have desperately, and outrageously, tried to claim that they inspired these uprisings, referring to the Arab Spring as a "Twitter revolution" or a "Wikileaks breakthrough" - but in truth, Arabs have shown that they don't need middle-class white folk in the Home Counties to pen tear-stained letters on their behalf.
This explains Amnesty's and others' niggling discomfort with what has happened in Saudi Arabia - this and other sweeping events in the Arab world implicitly call in to question the value of aloof human-rights activism. It reminds us that societies are only meaningfully changed by the people who live in them, and not through expressions of lip-wobbling concern by do-gooding, purpose-seeking outsiders.