Voting for Saudi women?


Women in Saudi Arabia showed a great deal of tenacity recently at municipal voting centers where they showed up to register for their right to vote. But they were largely disappointed because female names are not yet listed in the electoral system. Nevertheless, they seem to be stepping up efforts to gain adult franchise for women in all walks of Saudi society.

The desert kingdom held its first nationwide polls in 2005 since the state’s formation in 1932; but only eligible men were allowed to vote in the municipal elections. The second elections are scheduled for September, and Saudi women seem eager to get a head start on the registration process.

“It is important that women should have the right to vote, so that their voices are clearly heard by the government, and a female point of view can be put forward,” said a Saudi activist to Al Arabiya.

About 15 Saudi women showed up at the municipal center in Jeddah, demanding a voice in a male-only electoral system, Arab News reported.

The women, members of “The Baladi” (My Town Campaign) were allowed to express their desires to an organizing committee.

“With time and with initiatives from the municipal branches we can actually reach a stage where we can have places for women to vote without mingling with men,” said Basma Al-Suyoufi, a member of the campaign.

“The country’s civil rights should grant us similar opportunities to men to vote,” she added.

The Eastern Province also witnessed a participation of four women in Khobar on Sunday, following the footsteps of two others who went out on Saturday in an effort to register.

Two women, simply known as Hiba and Farah, were the first to attempt participating in the registration process, according to various Twitter feeds—and have been celebrated followers on the social media site.

The situation in Riyadh was similar, where 12 women showed up at a voting registration centers.

Rahman Dahmash, a spokesman for The General Committee for the Municipal Elections said at a recent news conference that Saudi Arabia was not ready for women’s participation at this time.

His comment hasn’t resonated well with Saudi women, who are otherwise active in business, technology, education, medicine, and a variety of other fields.

“We came to Al-Farzdak School at Al-Sulaimaniya district where voting cards are issued. Abdul Rahman Al-Othman, the head of the election center, told us that voting was not allowed but was not able to give us good reasons and told us to consult the Ministry of Rural Affairs,” said Noha Al-Sulaiman, a woman who wanted to vote.

“Saudi women can’t believe that a lack of preparation is behind the denial of their rights to political participation,” said Nadya Khalife, Middle East women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Another female activist told Human Rights Watch: “Some Saudi women have all the qualifications necessary, and want to become part of the political process in their country.”

Saudi Arabia has been looking into creating a mechanism, which would allow women the right to participate in the electoral system since April 2009. But no deadline has been set for adopting these measures.

Prince Mansour bin Muteb, Deputy Minister for Municipal and Rural Affairs, said as much after attending a conference of municipal councils in the eastern province in April 2009, according to al-Watan newspaper. The meeting’s recommendations included that women be eligible to vote. The election for half the seats on the councils was part of a series of reforms the Kingdom is undertaking.

Many advocates of reform reject Western critics for “failing to understand the uniqueness” of Saudi society. But there seems to be an understanding that the kingdom has to adapt to global socioeconomic changes in the near future.

King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz appoints members of the Shura Council, a body with some functions of a national parliament, but has yet to appoint any woman, although the Shura Council president in 2006 appointed six women as advisers.

In 2009, King Abdullah appointed Nura al-Fayiz deputy minister of education, responsible for girls’ education.

Saudi Arabia’s population is 26.1 million and its per capita GDP is $23,701.

(Ikram Al-Yacoub of Al Arabiya can be contacted at [email protected])