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Saudi women say municipal elections 'opens up windows'

“I advise both women and men to exercise their voting rights as this is a privilege we didn’t previously have.” (Photo courtesy: Haifa al-Hababi)

For Haifa al-Hababi, candidacy in Saudi’s upcoming municipal elections - which are the first polls in the conservative kingdom’s history where women can run - has everything to do with setting a precedent.

“I work with a lot of Saudi female students,” said Hababi, who is an architecture professor at Prince Sultan University in the capital Riyadh. “I’d like to run to give them more opportunities. By running, I’m setting myself as a role model and example for these girls’ fathers that they can do anything they want in the future.”

On December 12, women will be able to register to vote and run for office in the municipal elections – a legacy from the reign of the late King Abdullah, who died in January this year.

Nationwide registration began on August 22, with voters and candidates from the kingdom’s two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah allowed to register a week earlier. Candidates in other provinces will be able to register on August 31.

Saudi political and social writer Hala al-Dosari said that local activists have been fighting for representation for the past decade, despite mainstream media outlets only just starting to cover the participation of women in the December poll.

I’d like to run to give them more opportunities. By running, I’m setting myself as a role model and example for these girls’ fathers that they can do anything they want in the future.

Haifa al-Hababi

“It’s been a long road since 2005 when women first started asking about their right to participate in these elections,” Dosari told Al Arabiya News.

“While the municipal elections aren’t going to change the lives of women drastically, this upcoming vote will create more windows for them to move and to lobby,” she said, adding that the vote would result in more men to seeing their female counterparts as colleagues “rather than [just] their stakeholders.”

While the upcoming municipal polls will be the first in which women can participate in, Saudi women have had representation since 2013 through the Shura Council, an advisory body.

The council, which consists of 150 members appointed by the king, has by law 30 seats allocated for women.

Meanwhile, critics say that women’s participation in the upcoming municipal elections would not add much to women’s suffrage.

One of the key issues that still affect Saudi women’s rights today is the male guardianship system. Under the system, women are required to obtain the permission of male relative if they want to complete their university education, work, travel abroad, and file a lawsuit.

Over the last few years, the Saudi government has mulled reforms to the system. Last year, Saudi Arabia accepted many recommendations made by the U.N. Human Rights Council. One included taking steps to phase out the male guardianship system.

“Municipal councils and the Shura council have limited powers and currently there is no female minister in government. The only female deputy minister, who was appointed by the former king in the previous government, was replaced in this year’s cabinet reshuffle,” Rothna Begum, a Middle East women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Al Arabiya.

Hababi disagreed, saying that any real political representation for women has to start at the grassroots level.

“At the end of the day, it is a management issue. If women can manage their houses then they can manage their neighborhoods and by extension, communities after that,” she said.

Rights push

Activists credit both local and international efforts for the push for more Saudi women’s rights.

“Internationally, through Saudi’s association with several international bodies at the U.N. pushing for more rights and reforms politically, economically and socially. And locally through mobilizing the Saudi community, including the ‘Baladi’ campaign coordinated by many Saudi women, including Fozia Alhani and Hatoon al-Fassi,” said Dosari.

Baladi, Arabic for “My Country,” is an initiative that was started four years ago by a number of Saudi women demanding more political participation. They have been holding workshops since 2011 in the anticipation of being allowed to vote and run in elections.

The campaign recently hit a roadblock when the ministry shut down workshops the campaign planned to take place. According to a report by Saudi newspaper al-Hayat, the ministry of municipal and rural affairs decided to stop the workshops for regulatory purposes.

They also added that the ministry wanted to ensure none of the training programs were being used for commercial and self-serving interests and that they would be managing their own programs with candidates.

“Baladi has had a plan to hold several workshops to educate the people about the culture of elections. However, the ministry has stopped us from holding these workshops as they wanted the election program to be more unified and centralized,” Hatoon al-Fassi told the local Saudi Gazette at the time.

If women can manage their houses then they can manage their neighborhoods and by extension, communities after that.

Haifa al-Hababi

Historically, women candidates in the Gulf states have performed poorly when given the first chance to vote and run for office.

In Bahrain, when women went to the polls for the first time in 2002, not one succeeded in being elected. In Kuwait, four women were able to win seats in the National Assembly in 2009 despite Kuwait having the oldest legislative body in the Gulf.

In the United Arab Emirates, the Federal National Council, an advisory body that in 2006 began to allow some citizens to vote and run for half of its seats, started registering potential candidates this week with a preliminary list of 347 names approved to run, 22 percent of them women.

“In the end, I advise both women and men to exercise their voting rights as this is a privilege we didn’t previously have,” Hababi told Al Arabiya. “Especially for the younger generation, they have to vote and add their voice.”

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Last Update: Monday, 4 January 2016 KSA 13:11 - GMT 10:11
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Saudi women say municipal elections 'opens up windows'
On December 12, women will be able to register to vote and run for office in the municipal elections
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