A Long Road to Women’s Suffrage in Saudi Arabia
A landmark change in law has given the Kingdom’s women the right to vote. But a host of cultural and legal barriers will prevent strong turnout at the polls.
JEDDAH—When voter registration opened in August, few of Rana’s friends noticed, and the 25-year-old recent college graduate drew curious looks when she brought it up. None of them were planning to participate in Saudi Arabia’s Dec. 12 municipal elections — the first vote in which women will be allowed to stand as voters and candidates.
“My friends know about the election, but they are not excited about it,” she recalled on an October afternoon from her office in a Jeddah PR company. “They didn’t register [to vote].”
Rana had felt differently. Sure, it was a small step, and maybe little would come of it. But she was insistent. “We need women to get into this process,” she told her friends and family — and herself. “Women can do things for society.”
But in Rana’s case, those things don’t include registering to vote. Rana ticked off the many obstacles she encountered. The window for registration was too brief, the documentation required too onerous, and her legal guardian — which all Saudi women require for even the most basic bureaucratic chores — wasn’t around to arrange her paperwork. And her family, inclined to think of politics as a man’s domain, discouraged her efforts.
Across Saudi Arabia, Rana’s experience was shared by countless peers. The election commission says that women make up about 22 percent of new voters for December’s municipal polls, or just over 100,000 people. Added to previously registered Saudis, that will make women about 6 percent of the 1.7 million person electorate.
Saudi policymakers and female activists alike touted the monarchy’s introduction of universal suffrage in municipal elections as a landmark in relaxing the country’s notoriously strict constraints on women. (Females in Saudi Arabia are treated as legal dependents from birth to death and can take few decisions — from travel to schooling — without a man’s consent.) But the disappointing registration numbers seem to tell another story. Some naysayers are already arguing that it proves women aren’t capable or interested in being involved in politics.
Yet low registration numbers are less a reflection of female interest than an indication of just how many barriers still stand in the way of Saudi women hoping to participate in public life. A registration process meant to empower women ended up being a reminder of the many ways female citizens are still held back.
It’s not how many imagined universal suffrage unfolding back in 2011, when the late King Abdullah announced that women would be allowed to vote for the local councils that were first formed in 2005, and wield influence over whether projects like new roads and sewer systems are approved and how much they should cost. Authorities promised they would be ready for women to participate by 2015.
The opening for women is tied to a series of other reforms to the municipal councils. In previous elections, voters chose half of the municipal councils’ members, while the other 50 percent were appointed by the government. That number will now rise to two-thirds elected. The new councils also have expanded powers to review local projects and spending. And crucially, each council will have its own budget, separate from that of the mayor’s office it is meant to advise. Meanwhile, the minimum voting age has dropped from 21 years old to 18.
But in dozens of interviews, women recounted a series of obstacles that stood in the way of their efforts to register. Timing was the most common complaint: Voter registration booths opened Aug. 22 and closed Sept. 14 — the kingdom’s most popular travel period, when, like Washington, D.C., much of Saudi Arabia closes up shop. That window included the height of the August heat, and fell just before the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Rana, for example, was visiting family in Riyadh during that time, an obligation that prevented her from registering in Jeddah.
“They should have kept [registration] open much after Hajj,” says Khaled AlMaeena, former editor in chief of the local daily Arab News. “That’s the time when we’re all out for vacation. If women didn’t register, it’s because of the logistical issues.”
Documentation proved equally daunting. Voters were required to bring their national ID cards and a proof of residency, a complicated request in a country where most women rely on a guardian to own property, pay utility bills, and sign rental agreements. If female voters couldn’t secure any proof of residency in their own names, the municipality asked for a stamped certification from the local government. But some women said they were told at office after office that this was not a service anyone was equipped to provide.
“It was a big mess; it was really a hassle,” recounts one longtime female activist in Jeddah, describing her experience. First the phone company declined to put an address on a bill with her name. So the voting registration center directed her to the mayor’s office to notarize a home rental certificate. There, she was told, it was the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce that provided such paperwork — but they too declined. In the end, it took a favor from a friendly bureaucrat to get something stamped.
Social pressures were equally prohibitive. Rana’s family hadn’t encouraged her to vote, and some families disallowed their wives and daughters from registering altogether. “Some of them have this opinion of women that they are not able to do anything,” she says.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s social conservatives launched a vitriolic social media campaign warning of moral decay if women were elected. “I say: it is forbidden for Muslim women to participate,” one cleric with 161,000 Twitter followers, Abdulrahman Bin Nasser Al-Barrak, wrote in a fatwa, warning of “consequences in the afterlife” for those who took part.
A combination of logistical and social obstacles prevented even some of Saudi Arabia’s most vocal women’s rights advocates from joining the voter rolls. One was Muna AbuSulayman, a former secretary general of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation and one of the kingdom’s most prominent female television personalities. Between her own travels and those of her guardian, her father, she was unable to gather the necessary paperwork to prove her residency.
“One part of me is extremely upset because I wasn’t able to register,” she says. “I understand the need to prove where one lives, but they made it a little too difficult, with too short of timing.”
While committed rights activists struggled to file their papers, women from more conservative backgrounds never made it that far. Legally, female voters could register without the approval of a guardian — but in practice, this was rarely the case. Women here infamously cannot drive, and many families insist they leave home with a male family member. “The first obstacle would be mobility — their husbands didn’t let them go to register,” says AlMaeena.
Even if women were able to overcome these constraints, many still struggled to shake an overriding sense that the municipal elections won’t achieve much. It’s an understandable feeling, as years of promised reforms have only chipped away at the margins of their daily concerns.
“A lot of people say, why should we register? And this is the sad thing,” recounts the Jeddah activist, a retired university professor. “A lot of my friends, they’re all educated, but they say what’s the use? Why should I go through that?”
Hopeful candidates agree that voter motivation is their starkest challenge. “It’s not clear for many people how important their involvement is,” argues Randa Baraja, a manager in a health company, who has applied to be a candidate in the December polls.
Plenty of government posters and signs advertised the how and when of the elections: where registration sites were located, and what hours they were open. What was lacking, she argued, was the “so what” — a message explaining why voters should register at all.
Despite the initial hiccups, the opportunity to vote may do more for women than it appears, advocates say. The municipal councils aren’t glamorous, but they work on the quotidian issues — from fixing potholes to cleaning up trash — that most closely affect Saudis’ quality of life. Assuming women manage to get elected, they will have an opportunity to demonstrate to the public that they can get important things done.
Visibility alone could also have an impact, as it has in the national advisory parliament, the Shura Council. Women were appointed to the 150-member body for the first time in 2013, amid a similar mix of wariness and skepticism. “A lot of people now say [women have impacted] the Shura’s functionality,” said Basma Al Omair, CEO of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce’s AlSayedah Khadija Bint Khawilid Center, an internal research and advocacy shop for women. “Although their authority hasn’t changed, the dynamic has, due to the women.”
For many, that opportunity was worth the hassle. It took the retired Jeddah activist two weeks to register. But she did it, and pushed her friends and family members to register too. “You won’t get anything out of it; your kids will get something out of it,” she told them.
“It’s the first step, pushing a door ajar. Why not push it open?”
This is the first in a series of articles reporting on the state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Reporting for this story was made possible through a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.
Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images