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Saudi Arabia cracks women political barrier, allows them to vote

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Saudi Arabia women (source: lifegate.com)
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While women in Saudi Arabia still aren’t allowed to drive cars, and need to take permission from a male guardian to work, travel, or enroll in school, they will be standing for the country’s municipal elections slated for December 12. This is the first time in the history of the country, where ‘women emancipation’ is a strange word for many, that women have been allowed to participate in the electoral process.

The only two former elections in 2005 and 2011 featured only male candidates campaigning for a mass of male voters. In a country where tribal loyalties are of great importance, the concept of electoral democracy is still new.

The late King Abdullah, in 2011, had given the country’s women the right to vote in the 2015 elections and also stand as candidates. Women had enjoyed at least some voting rights in the other Gulf countries till then. He had also ordered that 20 per cent of members of the Shura Council, the kingdom’s quasi-parliament, be females.

“We reject to marginalize the role of women in the Saudi society,” he had said at the time.

According to reports on Monday, among the 6,917 total candidates this year, 979 are women competing for positions in 284 municipal councils. However, in a population of 31 million, only 131,000 women have registered to vote. Still, the move is massive step towards progress.

“We will vote for the women even though we don’t know anything about them,” Um Fawaz, a young teacher, told The Arab Weekly, “It’s enough that they are women.”

Men haven’t been completely hostile to this idea either. Saud al-Shammry, a Riyadh resident of 43, commended the move and said that it was time for a new approach. He added that “there’s a big possibility” of him voting for a woman if her platform was convincing enough.

“If we want to develop or reform our country we should put a woman in every decision-making level,” said Nassima Al-Sadah, a Qatif candidate.

Females however, still have a long way to go in the country. Rules which strictly keep the two sexes separate and other gender-specific restrictions hinder the campaigning process of the women to a large extent. Moreover, women are barely aware of the registration procedures and the number of registration stations opened by the government is too few.

Though candidates are not allowed to communicate directly with members of the opposite sex, it doesn’t pose a problem for the male candidates who can speak with the men voters who form the majority. Women are left to campaign mainly through spokespersons, as they are not allowed to contact men even via social media.

“If I want to win, I have to target men,” candidate Nassima al-Sadah told The New York Times earlier this month. “I can’t win if I don’t talk to men.”

An official promotional poster for the elections in Hafr al-Batin, which contained a drawing of a man and a woman, had the woman’s face slashed out.

“It’s very, very difficult for us to win and to target our voters,” said 33-year-old Safinaz Abu-Alshamat, who is planning a social media campaign in her Makkah district.

Yet another cause of worry for the country’s female population is that King Salman, who succeeded the late King Abdullah in January, hasn’t done much towards politically empowering women. So, there is a great need for rigorous active female participation in this year’s election, in order to make sure that the women’s rights reforms aren’t scaled back by the ruling monarch.

“I’m not excited by the idea of winning,” candidate Loujain al-Hathloul told Britain’s The Telegraph. Hathloul spent 73 days in jail earlier this year for her participation in a women’s voting drive. “I’m focused on increasing the number of women who stand in elections,” she said.

While some, such as university professor and women’s rights campaigner, Dr Hatoon Alfassi call the move “a step toward women’s full citizenship”, others count the changes to women’s suffrage laws as amounting to nothing.

“Things are getting worse and worse,” remarked activist Aziza al-Yousef. “I think we need to change the whole system.”

 

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Saudi Arabia lifts ban on women drivers; 7 more bans yet to be addressed for Saudi women

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saudi women
A woman drives a car in Saudi Arabia, Oct. 22, 2013. VOA

Oct 2, 2017: The Sharia-ruled monarchy of the Middle-East, Saudi Arabia decided to lift the ban on women drivers on September 26, much to the elation of Women’s Rights Activists throughout the world. King Salman issued a royal decree on Tuesday granting Saudi women the right to drive thereby ending the kingdom’s notorious reputation of being the only country that prohibits women from driving. The law will come into effect on June 24, 2018.

While the pronouncement signifies a “positive step” towards women-empowerment, the conclusion of whether such laws can be turned into practice in a patriarchal society like Saudi Arabia can be drawn only with the unfolding of time.

Apart from relaxing the ban on women drivers, the Gulf Kingdom also terminated a series of interdicts forced upon the women. A handful of loosened bans included that women will no longer require approval from their guardian to work.

Another significant statute blessed upon women the freedom to enter the sports stadiums albeit exclusively for the Saudi National Day besides the compulsory edict of being seated only in a family section far away from single men.

The Government has also passed laws allowing girls in public schools to play sports and have access to physical education.

saudi women
UN Women political cartoon. Wikimedia

While everyone is busy celebrating women drivers in Saudi Arabia, there is still a myriad of bans inflicted on women. These are:

1. Following the divorce, Saudi women are permitted to keep their children with them only till they reach the age limit of 7years (for girls) and 9years (for boys).

2. Saudi women cannot marry and divorce without the due consent of their male guardian. The male head dominates everything in a Saudi family.

3. The women of Saudi Arabia do not have the permission to get a passport without the prior assent of their male guardian.

Also Read: A step forward: Saudi Women take up active roles in an All female Emergency Call Centre 

4. The approval of the male guardian is also required during any medical emergency. Women cannot take a voluntary decision regarding issues that concern the question of their life and death!

5. Women do not possess the right to socialize with men except for immediate family members. Consequently, all the restaurants and places of public entertainment in Saudi Arabia maintain two sections, one for the men where women cannot enter and the other for families.

6. Under Sharia laws, daughters can inherit property but only half of what is received by their male counterparts.

7. Saudi women cannot even start a work unless two male members testify about her character in a law court before she can be granted a loan or a license.

Prepared by Mohima Haque of Newsgram. Twitter @mohimahaque26