It makes us proud to see Saudi women take part in elections for the first time. There are 979 women participating as candidates in the upcoming municipal elections. That is a big number, and it’s a huge step forward in a country that, according to some international organizations, is one of the most excluding of women.
Saudi Arabia has occupied the lowest ranks of the World Economic Forum’s list of countries by gender parity, although women constitute 20 percent of the local labor force. According to the 2008 gender parity report, the kingdom was among the lowest-ranking countries in terms of the political empowerment of women, with the lowest possible score of zero.
No society can move forward when it obstructs the presence of half of its population due to inherited governmental regulations or traditions.Abdulrahman al-Rashed
Saudi women have today achieved significant progress in several fields. They have 30 seats in the Shura Council after they were granted a 20 percent quota. These women have managed to positively contribute to the council's discussions, ideas and votes. The council is also currently reviewing all regulations which are considered as obstructive to women's rights and work.
Regarding the upcoming municipal elections, women will not only participate as voters but also as candidates running for this public office, something that was previously exclusive to men. As I’ve said in a previous article, what’s important is not the result but that women take part and participate.
An important declaration
Even if none of these female candidates win in the elections, their participation alone is tantamount to an important declaration in this country’s present and future.
No society can move forward when it obstructs the presence of half of its population due to inherited governmental regulations or traditions, especially given that Saudi women have overcome many challenges and achieved success in educational and scientific fields and in the labor market both inside and outside the kingdom. It’s also not right for there to be more female than male students across all educational stages, and yet for women to be kept marginal in society.
There have been significant changes in this area. For example, many fathers and husbands think that women’s employment has become a necessity, because women have become breadwinners and are no longer a burden on the family. Saudi women’s insistence to work and acceptance of low wages as well as taking risks to travel long distances on dangerous roads to work every day reflect a true struggle that’s rare in any other society. This is a testimony to women’s insistence and determination. Women cannot therefore be marginalized just because a certain category refuses the idea of women’s employment – with some even rejecting the idea that women can go outside their homes. This is a social struggle, and I am happy that the government has taken the women’s side and involved them in the elections, thus sending a clear message to everyone.
Honestly speaking, I did not expect such a large number of women, almost a thousand, to run for office. Social obstructions that usually prevent women from running for office and even from voting, led me to estimate that the number of candidates would not exceed 50.
As to what women will do in the municipal councils, then that’s up to them. Women are important in their neighborhoods, as they know about local problems better than men, who spend most of their time outside their homes and the nearby areas.
The role of these councils will progress with time. Women are currently part of the state’s legislative council and they will be part of municipal councils and will thus be granted job opportunities in fields that were once exclusive to men. Laws that decrease the restrictions on women’s family and administrative conditions are also being studied. It’s only recently that women were granted their own independent identity cards.
There have been certain failures, such as rejecting the study of a draft law on protecting women from harassment. But I am confident that this draft law will be studied and approved by the majority of the Shura Council members who saw the size of protest against their previous decision.
Women’s experiences in Gulf societies cannot be separated from one another. One of the pleasing achievements is that of Dr Amal al-Qubaisi, who was appointed president of the Federal National Council in the United Arab Emirates. This is an advanced political move with many significant indications.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today
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