Saudi Women Set Their Sights on the Right to Vote

"Equality." Image from Al-Watan.

Last March, Saudi authorities stated that half the seats in the municipal council in the next September 2011 run would be elected, rather than selected by the monarch himself as usual. But when they implemented elections, they neglected to include women’s votes. When asked why, the kingdom’s electoral commission mentioned it was because of logistic-related difficulties in sex-segregated election stations, the same reason that was previously used back in 2005. Almost six years have passed and nothing has changed, proving only that logistic-related difficulties are only an excuse for not making changes.

“Women will not participate in this session,” Abdul- Rahman al-Dahmash, director of the kingdom’s electoral commission, said referring to the municipal balloting. “There is a plan, though not with a definite time, to put in place a framework so that women can participate in upcoming elections.”

Saudi women are not shutting up this time! Activists decided to create their own municipal council to cast their votes, and a whole online campaign called “Baladi” (“My country”) has been lunched and widely spread—it’s gathered 2,000 members in a short period of time. The campaign is solely run by women from different parts of Saudi Arabia:

We will never give up, and we will not stop our campaigning,” said Dr. Hatoon al-Fassi whose is a human rights activist and a history lecturer at King Saud University in Riyadh. [sic]

Several Saudi women have recently challenged this ban by showing up at voter registration offices in different Saudi cities demanding voter identification cards. Saudi blogger Zaki Safar reports:

When two young women made attempts to register to vote, they were subjected by some locals to a broad spectrum of insults, ranging from “unoriginal/impure Saudis” to “attention seekers” to “whores”. They were told “to stay home and raise kids,” and in some cases thought to warrant legal prosecution.

And against all expected odds, there’s some official support to the cause. The Shoura Council recommended to the government that it take necessary measures to allow Saudi women to vote in municipal elections under Islamic law (since “Islamic law” is up for debate, who knows what that means).  But the Shoura Council Secretary General explained that the house insisted that the franchise should only be exercised by women in line with Islamic regulations.

What could that possibly mean? Like women should stand in a line waiting for approval that they pass some arbitrary Islamic test and so are qualified to be humans enough for their votes to be valid?

Things have really changed in the nature of the Saudi society, specially how men see women and the concept of equality. In his blog, Saudi blogger Zaki Safar says:

As a Saudi male watching such a quagmire unfold day in and day out, the inequity weighs greatly on my mind and heart. The fact thatthere is little I can do to help rectify the situation amounts to a rubbing of salt into a wound. [sic]

Not only that Safar feels guilty about how Saudi women live, but also he thinks highly of the fact that women in his country suffer in the name of religion:

To top it all off, my country, the land where the generous Prophet of Islam brought unprecedented rights and status to women, is also burdened by an ever-more empowered religious police force that unfailingly breathes down women’s necks, further and further stifling and eroding the little freedom they might otherwise have enjoyed.

Though one cannot neglect the hint of hope from everything happening and changing that the structure of the Saudi nation, writer Irfan Al-Alawi is asking us to be “carefully optimistic” and take a very good look at everything happening. In his article “Justice delayed is justice denied,” he uses the example that the Saudi authorities decided to give all Saudi female law graduates the right to be hired in courts and different legal service offices all over the country: since these women were only hired in legal cases involving a woman, the sex-segregation rule was still preserved!

Prohibiting women from voting immediately while promising them a concession in the future is so obvious in its deceit that it would seem to require no further comment. The Shoura Council expressed its contempt for women’s calls to be treated equally by relegating its discussion of female suffrage to a meeting of its committee on housing, water and public services.

Right now, there’s an almost official acceptance to the idea of voting, but the issue is when it will be fully accepted. Dr. Hatton Al-Fassi says that this is not enough:

On behalf of Saudi women who are keen to be present in the public matter, and to respond to the invitation of our king to be a partner of the man in building the country, I hope to adopt the recommendation of women’s participation as candidates in municipal elections. Considering that this is a right provided for in the list of municipal elections, but will have a strong impact if it was also of the Shura Council. We hope to take this recommendation in a period of time less than the ten months it took for the previous recommendations!

Saudi women are charging for their rights, both behind the wheel and in the voting booth. Don’t stop now, ladies!

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