Saudi Women Get the Vote

For the first time, municipal elections are set to take place in Saudi Arabia. The elections alone stand as an important sign of Saudi Arabia's increasing democratization, but even more surprisingly, women will be able vote in these elections. Women's activities are highly restricted in the Saudi kingdom, but in recent years many have managed to gain a foothold in business affairs – nearly 10% of private businesses are run by women – a step that is translating into increased political power. Though the Saudi government does not want to anger conservative clerics and politicians by loosening controls on women, increased international and domestic pressure for gender equality has paid off. Women will take their place beside men at the polling booths this fall, assuming that no roadblocks are thrown in their way before then. – YaleGlobal

Saudi Women Get the Vote

Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most male-dominated countries, is preparing to break with tradition and risk the wrath of religious conservatives by allowing women to take part in its first elections.

Plans for municipal elections, a key step towards modernisation and democracy, were announced in October, but the government gave no public indication of whether women would be included as voters or as candidates.

Saudi officials said privately at the time that they wanted to introduce women's suffrage but hoped to slip it through quietly at a later date to avoid a conservative backlash.

Public confirmation came yesterday, in a press release from the Saudi embassy in London. A paragraph describing the election plans said: "It is believed both men and women will be given the opportunity to vote."

Saleh al-Malik, a member of the Shura Council, the kingdom's non-elected parliament, confirmed that women would be allowed to take part, though the government is taking a cautious approach.

He said anyone aged over 21 would be entitled to vote.

Although the law will not state explicitly that women can vote, "there will be no clause saying that women are not eligible to vote or be elected", he said.

The elections are expected to be held in late October.

Voters in 180 municipalities will be asked to choose between four and 16 councillors, depending on population size.

The electoral law is not expected to be approved until August, giving opponents little time to organise a rearguard action.

Women in Saudi Arabia must follow a strict dress code. They are not allowed to drive and need permission from a male relative to travel.

Pressure for change has built up as increasing numbers of Saudi women take up employment. About 10% of private businesses are now believed to be run by women - a situation that would have been unimaginable a generation ago.

A group of female Saudi journalists who visited Britain recently described how they were segregated from their male colleagues in their newspaper offices. Some had felt obliged to write articles under an assumed - male - name.

Women in the country have also experienced problems with the emergency services. Some have died because relatives prevented them being taken to hospital by a male ambulance crew.

In an unprecedented move last year, 300 Saudi women signed a petition calling on the country's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, to recognise their legal and civil rights.

Rejecting women's suffrage would leave Saudi Arabia exposed to international criticism. Elsewhere in the Arab world, women vote in almost all the countries that hold elections.

Women do not vote in Kuwait. Although the emir wanted them to vote and stand as candidates, conservative elements in parliament blocked the move. Among the arguments used against women's participation is that menstruation could cloud their political judgment.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004