Female voters slow to register in Saudi Arabia

For the first time in Saudi Arabia's history, women will be allowed to take part in municipal elections scheduled for December. The big question, though, is how many will actually do so.

With only 11 days left in the voter registration process, it seems that women have not exactly been queueing up to register. On Saturday, the Saudi Gazette reported:

"Female voter registration centers in the governorates of Farasan Island, Al-Darb and Dhamad in Jazan region registered only 16 voters for municipal council elections. 

"Shaha Muhammad Asiri, chairperson of the women’s election circuit in Al-Darb, said only five female voters registered during the past days due to difficult conditions and lack of awareness on elections among women. 

"In Farasan Island, female voters registration center registered six voters and Dhamad governorate registered four female voters."

So far, the information about voter registration is patchy – some areas are providing figures and other areas are not – but it does appear that the proportion of women who are registering is low. Out of 820 voters who registered in Qassim, for example, only 120 were female.

The bureaucracy involved in registering is clearly a deterrent and although women don't need a man's permission to register they are almost certain to need help from a male relative in providing the necessary documentation, as Molouk Ba-Isa explains in an article for Arab News:

"When registering to vote at their designated centre, women must provide a national identity card or other recognised government or organisation ID, or an attested copy of the family identity document. 

"They also must produce a document proving residence location. Since most women in the Kingdom live as part of a family unit, it is unusual to have a house deed or lease in a woman’s name. This causes complications for voter registration since the prospective registrant must show not only her own ID, but also an ID linking her to the individual owning or renting the property where she lives – as well as the property deed or lease. 

"She will need a male relative to cooperate in making such documents available."

Ba-Isa also describes here own – eventually successful – efforts to register:

The first voter registration centre visited was No. 1061, located in a girls’ school on the outskirts of the Thuqbah District, Alkhobar. With the registration timing from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., a police car was parked at the door to the registration center, its vehicle lights on to illuminate the entrance. Inside the school there was an enthusiastic greeting from the center’s registration manager, Abeer Al Owirdi, and her team of three women.

“Would you like to register as a voter? Come, please sit down. Would you like Arabic coffee, American coffee or tea? We’re so happy you’ve come here,” said registration official Huda Al Sabt. There was a party atmosphere as documents were produced and checked, but registering to vote was impossible.

“Women must register to vote in the center designated for the district where they live,” explained registration official Aysha Hlawy. With her smartphone, she opened the website, www.intekhab.gov.sa, to show the location map ...

Thursday night it cost another SR30 to take a taxi to Voter Registration Center 1070. The reception there was cordial. The registration staff scrutinized the presented documents. There were smiles all around. The complete address of my home was found through http://locator.com.sa and the registration form was filled out and signed. The pink carbon copy of the form was provided as a registration receipt. It will need to be presented at the same polling station on election day. Mine was the seventh registration received there. 

“Come back next week,” the registration center manager encouraged. “We’d love for you to register as a candidate.”

Another question is whether any female candidates are likely to be elected. Both Arab News and the Saudi Gazette report that several prominent women have announced they will not be standing. Reasons given include a lack of clarity about the rules, being too busy for campaigning, and wishing to make way for a younger generation.

The likely difficulties facing female candidates have led one group of women to call for separate elections where women vote only for women and men vote only for men – thus ensuring that some women do get elected.

Arab News reports that women who decide to step forward as candidates can hire a PR firm to organise their campaign – though it will cost them between 200,000 and 250,000 riyals ($53,000-$67,000).
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 3 September 2015