RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, For the first time in the country’s history, Saudi Arabia will officially count the opinions of female citizens in its national elections on Dec. 12. More than a thousand women could appear on the ballots — another first for a conservative Muslim nation with a questionable women’s rights record and a reputation for a slow reforms process.
As of Monday, more than 900 women had signed up to run for various local government positions in the Arab nation. They formally launched their campaigns on Sunday by nominating themselves — a new right given them by former King Abdullahfour years ago.
The vote will mark just the third municipal election in Saudi Arabia’s history, but the first in which women can nominate political candidates. Prior elections in 2005 and 2011 featured only male candidates selected by a male-only contingent of voters.
So far, though, only 131,000 women in Saudi Arabia, a nation of nearly 31 million people, have signed up to participate — compared to more than 1.3 million men. Some, though, say the appearance of so many women on the ballot is a gigantic step forward.
“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.”
This year’s elections are the first after the late King Abdullah ordered in 2011 that women would be allowed to participate in the political nominating process going forward.
“We reject to marginalize the role of women in the Saudi society,” he said at the time.
While their inclusion in the races is progressive for Saudi women, commentators say actually getting elected is another story — mainly due to gender-specific restrictions that apply to both sexes, but are far less troublesome for men.
One such restriction is that candidates are not allowed to directly communicate with members of the opposite sex during their campaigns. However, observers say, men easily overcome this obstacle because they are able to speak with other men — an audience absolutely necessary in securing ballot support.
“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.”
“I’m not excited by the idea of winning,” candidate Loujain al-Hathloul, who was imprisoned for 73 days this year for participating in a women’s voting drive, told Britain’s The Telegraph. “I’m focused on increasing the number of women who stand in elections.”
While acknowledging there has been advancement for women in Saudi politics, proponents maintain that there’s still a long way to go before females have equal influence over the country’s national and local political landscape.
“Now it’s time to remove other barriers like not allowing women to drive cars and not being able to function and live a normal life without a male guardian,” Saudi women’s rights advocate Wajeha Al-Huwaider said in 2011.
Some women have said they will protest the 2015 elections, due to their belief that progress isn’t going far enough — and worry that King Salman might eventually scale back women’s rights reforms initiated by his predecessor.
Others, though, say at the end of the day the changes to women’s suffrage laws have actually amounted to no progress at all.
“Things are getting worse and worse,” activist Aziza al-Yousef said. “I think we need to change the whole system.”
By Doug G. Ware