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In September 2011, the late king of Saudi Arabia vowed that the female citizens of the country, long marginalized by strict social taboos and traditions, would be allowed to stand and vote in local municipal elections. Seen as a refreshing reformer after decades of suppression of women’s rights, Abdullah’s words were music to the ears of not just women but tolerant men as well.
Speaking on nationwide television, King Abdullah proclaimed that “Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior clerics and others to involve women in the Saudi Shura Council as members, starting from the next term.” He also added that “Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote.” While these words were spoken in 2011, it was understood that implementation would begin four years down the road in 2015.
Following his announcement, there was muted criticism from conservatives in the country, most of it expressed on social media, using aliases. While criticism from the conservatives was never publicly broadcast for fear of government response, its occurrence was local common knowledge. But there was also a cautious sense of optimism. A Saudi woman who preferred to remain anonymous quipped to Fanack, “So I can vote, but I can’t get a driver’s license. If I use my name I may be breaching the guardianship law.”
Social activist Sofana Dahlan – currently no longer active as such – from the Saudi city of Jeddah, recognized as the country’s most liberal, called the move a “paradigm shift.” In spite of the objections by the conservative elements in the country and by foreign media who did not believe that such steps went far enough towards granting women full freedom. It would be a historic day. Dahlan said “I think it’s very significant, but this will take time. People usually reject change in the beginning, but once it is embraced, and once it takes place and people start seeing the fruits of this, people will start to convert into accepting the idea.”
On the international front, the king’s decision was seen as an inadequate advance. Calling the announcement “long overdue,” Amnesty International said that it was a fraction of what was required to bring about gender equality.
“Let’s not forget that Saudi Arabian women won’t actually be able to drive themselves to the voting booths, as they’re still completely banned from driving,” said the group spokesman. He also highlighted prevailing conditions in the country that left Saudi women still unable to travel, work, study, or marry without the express permission of a male guardian, leaving them subject to abuse.
While lauding the king’s announcement of full and free elections that included Saudi women, Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, said that “King Abdullah’s promise that women will finally be allowed to vote is a welcome move away from the discrimination and exclusion that Saudi women have suffered for so long. Voting and running for the municipal council elections is a landmark achievement for Saudi women.” However, she urged the government to remove other barriers that were holding women back.
The historic day finally arrived in early December 2015, when a total of 7,896 candidates, including 979, women stood for election to 3,159 municipal council seats around the country. Although the registered vote was ten to one in favour of men, it was still deemed a significant event underscoring female participation.
The common theme in the election platform of many of the women candidates was a promise of more nurseries to offer longer daycare hours for working mothers, the creation of youth community centers with sports and cultural activities, improved roads, better garbage collection, and greener cities.
Municipal councils consist of residents of the city, half of whom are elected, the other half appointed by the government. The councils have the power, of which the details remain unclear, to investigate concerns restricted to the municipal aspects of their locale and bring them to the attention of the mayor and governor for further action. Their areas of concern range from trash collection to construction debris, from availability of public parks to hazardous conditions on the streets—anything that may concern a resident of the town or city.
One of the candidates declared on the eve of the vote that, “Even if I don’t win the election, I still win.” Haifa Al-Hababi, a professor at a local university, was quoted in as saying that “This is just the beginning. Mark my words.” She had been telling her students that the elections were a landmark change in Saudi Arabia. Al-Hababi said, “I tell them…this is a young country. It may seem developed because of the oil money. But it’s really just finding its way. Don’t discount it. This election is another step, even if a baby step, for women.”
Twenty women were elected to municipal councils across the country, perhaps an insignificant number to the Western world but enough to create a widespread buzz domestically. Almost immediately, a controversy arose when, during the first session of the recently elected Jidda municipal council, the two elected female members insisted that they be allowed to sit in the same room and at the same table as their male counterparts, with no partitions separating them.
A heated debate ensued, when the elected members of the council, Lama al-Suleiman and Rasha Hifzi, refused to sit behind a glass wall in separate offices during the council meetings and insisted on sitting with male counterparts at the same table, despite objections from some of the fundamentalist male members. The women argued that, “If we are not sitting at the same table in the general monthly meeting, then we will not be able to sit in the workshops, committee meetings, or meetings with the public, and that will greatly marginalize our role.”
To the dismay of many, the Saudi Minister of Rural and Municipality Affairs then quickly announced that addenda to the regulations made after the election results stated that women council members should be in a separate room following council proceedings and discussions and communicating with their colleagues through CCTV and microphones!
His ruling was widely condemned as a sign that he was giving in to the extremist elements in the country. Samar Fatany, a Saudi advocate of women’s rights, wrote, “These men apply their extremist ideology to marginalize the role of these women and obstruct their equal participation in the decision-making process. The idea that their presence is a sin is unacceptable and can no longer be tolerated by any respectable women in our country today.”