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.”