The municipal elections in Saudi Arabia scheduled for December will be the first in which women have been allowed to take part. Now that registration of voters and candidates has closed it is possible to get a clearer picture of the actual levels of female participation.
Across the kingdom, there are now 1,750,149 registered voters, of whom women account for 22%. Among the 3,071 who have filed nomination papers as candidates, 508 (16.5%) are women.
Although there are now more registered voters than for the previous elections in 2005 and 2011, the overall figure is still pretty low considering the kingdom has almost 19 million citizens (according to the 2010 census).
This lack of interest is widely attributed to disillusionment with the performance of municipal councils. In the words of one commentator:
"The apathy of the voters for the new elections may be attributed to the fact that the two previous experiences did not provide any achievements. They have actually flatly failed to improve the civic services let alone the development projects in their cities and towns."
There are, of course, also religious elements who denounce the whole idea of elections because they sinfully "imitate" the practices of unbelievers.
Apathy apart, the electoral registration system created disincentives for women that didn't apply to men – the most obvious one being transportation since women aren't allowed to drive. For some women, registering to vote involved travel to government offices in search of the necessary documentation as well as to the registration centres themselves. One particular difficulty was the need to provide evidence of where they live, as Maha Akeel explained in the Saudi Gazette:
"With regard to the proof of residency problem, for those women whose family card shows their name with their father or husband and the deed for the house they live in is in their father’s or husband’s name or their name, then there is no problem. However, for the many single, divorced, elderly women living in a house or apartment owned or rented not under their name but in the name of a brother or a son or relative, because women face difficulty renting a place under their name, then they need to provide extra documents proving their place of residency.
"That requirement was not announced until women went to the registration centres only to be refused. There, they were told that they need to go with all the relevant documents to the district chief to file a form and have it stamped as proof of their residency. This started a frenzy of searching for the district chief ...
"Identifying who the district chief is and where his office is located is only part of the difficulty, the other part is in finding him in his office because it is a part-time job and convincing him to stamp the form for rented places because he is only authorised to verify owned property.
"The other option is to verify residency through the chamber of commerce or place of work or post office. All these options were not announced beforehand, and in fact the women themselves had to think of them.
"Some centres accepted these alternatives; others did not."
It's clear from Akeel's article, and another one on SaudiWoman's blog that female registration would have been a good deal lower without the work of activists providing advice on how to negotiate the bureaucracy and in some cases offering free transportation.
However, the activists also had their own battles to fight. SaudiWoman describes the experience of the Baladi Initiative which "worked on raising awareness about the importance of [women's] participation":
"Unfortunately once the elections were coming up, these efforts were abruptly stopped by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. The Baladi Initiative had started workshops for women who planned to run [in the elections] and for potential women campaign managers. The workshops were free, open to all and planned for all the major cities.
"As soon as the first one began in Riyadh, the ministry issued a statement that anything pertaining to the elections has to be either run or licensed by the government. And since the Baladi Initiative is non-governmental then all of their lectures and activities became now illegal.
"Fortunately this did not discourage these bold women. Since they could not do anything on the ground, they took their movement online. They do interviews on TV to encourage participation and used social media to get the word out.
"Many influential women also had their photos at registration taken and posted to encourage other women to do the same."
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 24 September 2015