Saudi Women Register to Participate in First Elections

By Svetlana Shkolnikova, Staff Writer

Four years after the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections, a lack of awareness and logistical difficulties are keeping women from signing up to vote for the first time this December.

The Saudi Gazette reported on Aug. 29 that only 16 women had registered as voters in three governorates since they were able to do so on Aug. 22, with Jamal Al-Saadi and Safinaz Abu Al-Shamat becoming the first two women in the country to register to vote in the holy cities of Medina and Mecca on Aug. 16.

“I was quite ready for this day,” Saadi told the Gazette. “I have prepared all the documents needed to obtain a voter's card. This is a nice experience to go through. We are just at the beginning of the road.”

Election coordinators expect the number of registrants to rise as word spreads across the kingdom but the constraints of an extremely conservative Muslim society that bans women from driving and requires a male chaperone for most public activities makes the simple act of getting to a registration center complicated.

Still, those limitations are not likely to stop the 80 women expected to vie for seats on municipal councils, according to activist Fawziya Al-Hani, who launched a Facebook campaign called "Baladi" ("My Country") to urge women to get involved in the electoral process.

One aspiring candidate, Hanan Mohammad Al-Dahham, told Arab News that she plans to run for office to serve her community and "fulfill my social responsibility."

Candidates have until Sept. 17 to register while voter registration for the election ends on Sept. 14.

Al-Hani said the presence of women at voting booths and on ballots will "remove any shortcomings in the municipal councils" and ideally, help pave the way for future reforms in a country severely lacking in basic human rights for women.

Saudi Arabia ranked 130 out of 142 countries last year for gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum, and with a female workforce of only 13 percent, is widely considered to be one of the most oppressive and discriminatory environments in the world.

Photo: Saudi women pray during Eid al-Adha celebrations on a street in Riyadh, Nov. 27, 2009. By Reuters.