Saudi Arabian Women Finally Get A Vote. But Will They Have A Voice?
by BEENISH AHMED –
Women in Saudi Arabia began registering to vote over the weekend — for the first time in that country’s history. They will allowed to sign up to contest elections next weekend.
“The participation of the Saudi women in the municipal elections as voters and candidates was a dream for us,” Jamal Al-Saadi, the first women to register to vote in the city of Madinah told the Saudi Gazette. “The move will enable Saudi women to have a say in the process of the decision-making.”
While it’s a significant step, many advocates have noted that the limited freedom of women in Saudi Arabia and a largely closed political system render the reform virtually meaningless.
Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch noted that many Saudi women do not have the ID cards that will be required of them in order to vote.
“In principle, all Saudi women can obtain ID cards without asking anyone else’s permission,” hewrote. “But bars on women’s freedom of movement and opposition from male family members can make it difficult for some women to obtain ID card.”
That’s largely because of the guardianship system which gives male relatives legal control over many aspects of women’s lives. Through it, women are barred from attending school, working, traveling abroad, filing a lawsuit, or, in some cases, even receiving medical treatment, without the permission of their fathers, brothers, or husbands.
Still, some advocates note that it will be difficult for women to fully exercise their newfound democratic rights ahead of the elections that are slated for December.
Vanessa Tucker of Freedom House called women’s new electoral rights “an advance on paper only” for very different reasons.
“[E]lections have little impact,” she wrote in an op-ed for CNN. Tucker continued:
Political decision-making revolves around the King, who appoints his own cabinet and then ratifies the legislation that the body passes. Decision-making bodies like the Majlis al-Shura, the king-appointed 150-member consultative council, act in a consultative capacity. Local municipal elections were introduced in 2005. Half of the seats on these councils are determined by vote, and the other half by royal appointment. The votes that women will now have, then, are good for half of the seats for a largely advisory group in a system completely dominated by the palace.
She argued that the “closed nature of the Saudi system” means that women’s inclusion at the polls won’t really affect change in the country.
But some are more optimistic.
“It is a great step forward and we encourage every single move towards empowering women and girls in Saudi Arabia and ending discrimination against them,” Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a consultant with the women’s rights organization Equality Now, told ThinkProgress in an email.
Muna Abusulayman, a Saudi woman who has worked in media, education, and philanthropy said that things might change once women are elected to office. “[They] will bring a female point of view, demanding certain amendments to laws that are unfavorable towards women,” she told Al Jazeera.
The right to vote might eventually herald additional rights for Saudi Arabia’s women.