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? ...
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, Paris 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.