First female voters register in Saudi Arabia

Women have been excluded from previous municipal elections

With municipal elections scheduled for December, Saudi women have begun registering to vote for the first time in the kingdom's history.

Although the elections themselves are not particularly significant, the inclusion of women as both voters and candidates is an important step forward and builds on a royal decision in 2013 to appoint 30 women to the Shura Council – the unelected quasi-parliament.

However, the length of time it has taken to reach this point raises doubts about the kingdom's ability to implement reform on the scale that will be needed to avoid an eventual collapse of the system. And the price of granting electoral rights to women is a further entrenchment of gender apartheid.

Saudi Arabia held men-only municipal elections in the 1950s and early 1960s but there was then a long gap until 2005.

In the 2005 elections, women were not formally banned from taking part but in the face of opposition from conservative elements the authorities excluded them by citing "administrative difficulties". They claimed they had not had enough time to organise the gender-segregated voting facilities that Saudi custom required. 

A Saudi official explained that there were not enough women to run women-only registration centres and polling stations, and that only a fraction of the country's women had the photo identity cards that would be needed to vote. ID cards for women – which had been introduced only three years earlier – were a controversial issue because they required women to show their faces unveiled in the photographs.

Meanwhile, to placate women's rights activists – several of whom had declared themselves as would-be candidates – the authorities hinted that the "administrative" problems should be resolved in time for the next elections, due in 2009.

When 2009 arrived the elections were postponed until 2011, to allow time for "re-evaluation". That re-evaluation process included the drafting of a new electoral law which – again – did not specifically bar women from taking part. The Shura Council also recommended (though not without some dissent) that women should be included but by then it was deemed too late to make the necessary arrangements and the 2011 elections went ahead without them.

Finally, for this year's elections, everything seems to be in place to ensure that male and female voting goes ahead without any possibility of sexual hanky-panky. Of the 1,263 voting centres, more than a third have been reserved for female voters. Candidates will be allowed to address voters of the opposite sex, so long as they don't speak to them directly. Arab News reports:

"Male candidates can address female voters at the women's centres through audio circuit or CCTV, while female candidates can address voters at the men's centres through closed audio circuit." 

Voter registration started on August 22 and is due to continue until September 14, but so far only a trickle of voters have bothered to register. According to yesterday's Saudi Gazette, only 285 men and women registered during the first four days in Jeddah's ten constituencies. The picture elsewhere was very similar: only 300 had registered in Dammam and fewer than 100 in al-Baha, while in Qassim 700 men and 120 women had registered.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 26 August 2015