The first women allowed to vote in elections were probably citizens of the US state of Wyoming. The franchise was granted in 1869, but subsequently removed to conform to electoral law in the rest of America. Women were denied the right to vote in elections in the UK until 1919. They couldn’t vote in France until 1944.

Even after formal gender equality was granted in Western democracies, crippling discrimination remained. In the UK, women were expected to give up their jobs when they married in many manufacturing firms well into the 1950s. Until the abolition of educational selection in most of the UK in the 1970s, girls were institutionally disadvantaged by the fact that there were twice as many places for boys in grammar schools. In sport, bans on females participating in some sports were only lifted in the 1980s.

In most advanced economies, women continue to earn less than men doing similar jobs, are less likely to rise to senior management positions and are unrepresented in government and parliaments. They are still largely responsible for home maintenance and child care. In short, women work longer hours for less pay practically everywhere.

So it is ironic that there has been so much sceptical and patronising reaction to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s announcement that women will be allowed to vote and run for office in the next round of the kingdom’s municipal elections.

By any objective standards, King Abdullah’s action is an extraordinarily positive development. In terms of political rights – though still not in all areas of Islamic law – Saudi Arabian men and women are now equal. It is an unmistakable demonstration that the kingdom’s rulers are seeking to end discrimination against women in as many areas as is at present possible.

Progress has already been remarkable. At the time of the death of King Abdullah’s father, King Abdul-Aziz, in 1953, the overwhelming majority of Saudi Arabian women were poor, illiterate and as susceptible to death during and after giving birth as their equivalents were in Europe during the Middle Ages. The overwhelming majority of girls received limited education and there were no institutions for higher learning and training open to women.

Massive investment in healthcare across Saudi Arabia has radically reduced the risk of avoidable death and disease among Saudi women. Equally impressive has been the explosive expansion of female education. Objections to girls receiving education have now been largely overcome. Having a daughter who is unable to read, write and add up is now seen as a shameful dereliction of parental obligations.

But Saudi Arabian girls have done their own part to counter traditional prejudices by demonstrating that they are both smarter and harder working than Saudi Arabian boys. Drop-out rates and incidents of grade repetitions at school are significantly lower among girls than boys. There are more women at Saudi Arabian universities than men. A silent revolution is, as a result, taking place in every part of Saudi Arabian society.

The drive to open education up to Saudi Arabian girls has been one of the persistent themes of Saudi Arabian policy under no less than four Saudi Arabian kings. But King Abdullah can claim to be among the most effective champions of women’s rights that the Arab world has ever seen.

At the start of September, teaching started at the Princess Noura University in Riyadh. This is the largest institution for women’s education the world has ever seen. It is designed to accommodate no less than 40,000 students, all female and the campus will be a no-go zone for men. Within its walls, women will be able to learn, talk, think and dress free from the disapproving pressures of fathers, uncles and brothers.

Put in this context, King Abdullah’s decision is far more than a token gesture. It is part of the most powerful social trend in modern Arabia. So why are the leaders of what is widely regarded as one of the world’s most conservative states so progressive when it comes to public policy for girls and women?

There is an ideological reason. Sharia states that women have equal rights to men in terms of the ownership of property. There are also abiding social factors. As mothers and wives, women in Arabia have always had a vital role in shaping the younger generation. The suggestion that Saudi Arabian women are powerless is treated by Saudi Arabian men as ridiculous. The fact that the most powerful sub-group among King Abdulaziz’s sons were known as the Sudairi Seven in honour of their mother – she was from the Sudairi clan of central Arabia – is a demonstration of the importance traditionally attached to the role of women in Saudi society.

These factors shaped the thinking of King Abdullah. He was his mother’s only son by King Abdulaziz. She was an enlightened member of the noble Rasheed clan, the dominant power in the Arabian heartlands in the first two decades of the 20th century. Abdullah was raised in an environment where his father was often absent and his mother was the dominant influence. Princess Noura, by the way, was King Abdullah’s aunt.

Further impetus has been provided by Saudi Arabia’s campaign against religious extremism after it was learned that most of those responsible for the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US were Saudi Arabian men. It was recognised that one of the most powerful means of containing violent radicalism among young Saudi males is ensuring their mothers and sisters are well educated. Of all the changes that atrocity has wrought in the kingdom, the ensuing expansion of educational opportunities for women will probably prove to have the most lasting consequences.

Social change is invariably unpredictably dynamic. It is impossible to imagine that the hundreds of thousands of talented Saudi women emerging from the kingdom’s universities will be content to accept the restrictions on where they work that still persist. Their increasing role in the labour force will inexorably bring about radical change in the way that government and business operates.

Other changes are equally important. The forecast rapid growth in demand for family housing in Saudi Arabia is at least partly due to the fact that educated women are more likely to set up independent homes once they marry, rather than accept the traditional arrangement which involved them living with their husband’s family in a single household. In this respect too, the new generation of Saudi Arabian women are much closer to their Western counterparts than is generally imagined.

Even more important is the impact these changes will have upon religious practice and thinking. Islam’s vitality is largely due to the idea that it is a global brotherhood, a fraternity within which all believers are equal in the eyes of God. This has been conventionally interpreted as allowing women a secondary social role. But this is changing.

Women in Saudi Arabia and across the Muslim world are demanding – through their educational achievements and diligent adherence to their faith – that, here too, their moment has come. Islam is becoming a sisterhood.

So the world has got it wrong. Votes for women in Saudi Arabia is a historic turning point. It is the logical extension of settled public policy. And it opens the door to positive social and political change in the kingdom, the wider Middle East and the global Muslim community.