April 13, 2011 Special Dispatch No. 3761

Columnists Condemn Saudi Decision to Ban Women from Voting in Municipal Elections

April 13, 2011
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 3761

On March 19, 2011, the Saudi Municipal Election Commission announced its decision to ban women from voting in the municipal elections next month,[1] citing "social considerations" and a shortage of voting booths. The decision met with criticism from Saudi columnists, who said it was inconceivable that women, who constituted half of society and contributed to the country's development in all domains, should be denied a voice.

In a similar vein, in January 2011, Saudi women's rights activists launched a Facebook campaign demanding that women to be allowed to participate in the elections.

The following is an overview of the ministry's decision and some reactions to it from Saudi columnists.

Women Banned from Participating in Upcoming Municipal Elections

On March 3, 2011, the Saudi minister of municipal and rural affairs announced that the Municipal Election Commission was investigating the possibility of allowing women to vote in the elections, though not to run as candidates.[2] However, on March 12, a senior ministry official reported that following the commission's inquiry into the matter, it had been decided not to allow women to participate, for social reasons: "Women's participation as voters was proposed some time ago, but their participation in the next elections is inconceivable, due to several social considerations."[3]

Later that month, the election commission explained that the ban was due to technical reasons. Committee chairman 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Dahmash said that Saudi law did not prohibit women from participating in elections, but that because there were too few voting booths and no procedures for women's voting, their participation would be postponed until a later date. He assured that they would be allowed to vote in the future, once the proper conditions and protocol could be provided in all regions of the kingdom.[4]

Women's Rights Activists: We Will Form Municipal Councils of Our Own

In response to the authorities' decision, Saudi women's rights activist Dr. Hatoon Ajwad Al-Fassi announced that she and other Saudi activists intended to form independent municipal councils for women. She said that Saudi law did not prohibit this, just as it did not prohibit women from voting in the municipal elections.

Al-Fassi added that she and her fellow activists would continue their Facebook campaign, called "Baladi," demanding that women be allowed to vote. In an interview, she told "Our campaign will not fail... The election commission's decision is an unworthy one, as it [constitutes] the second consecutive attempt to marginalize the role of the Saudi woman, without any concern that this might harm Saudi Arabia's image in the world..."[5]

Saudi Liberal: It Is Inconceivable That Half the Saudis Be Without a Voice

In an article in the Saudi daily Al-Watan, Saudi columnist and author Halima Muzaffar wrote: "Are you acquainted with these Saudis: Dr. Samira Islam – the first Arab, man or woman, to receive a professorship in pharmacology, in 1983; Dr. Thoraya 'Obaid – the first Arab woman to attain a senior post in the U.N., [currently] serving as under-secretary-general; Dr. Ahlam Al-'Owdi – recognized in 1990 as the first to come up with a treatment for [certain] serious skin diseases; Dr. Huwaida Al-Qithami – the best children's heart surgeon in the Middle East and the second best in the world; Dr. Khawla Al-Krei'– the most senior cancer researcher at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh... And the list of names goes on...

"Now imagine these names, and the hundreds and even thousands of others among us – names that represent the Saudi woman's excellence and abilities in various fields. [Currently,] women are banned from voting in municipal [elections], because the laws of society consider the Saudi woman a non-citizen. Is it plausible not to recognize the citizenship of Saudi women who contributed [so greatly] to the homeland? Is it plausible to deny a voice to 49.9% [of society]...?"[6]

The Saudi Woman Is a Prisoner of Antiquated Thinking

In an article in the London-based daily Al-Hayat, Saudi columnist Badriya Al-Bashar wrote: "After the Ministry of Municipal Affairs announced that women would be [allowed to] participate in the municipal elections, it reneged once again, due to 'social considerations.' A woman cannot drive in Saudi Arabia due to social considerations. She has 96 billion [riyals'] worth of frozen [assets] in the banks... due to social considerations. There are 2,000 female lawyers [in Saudi Arabia] whom the Justice Ministry does not recognize due to social considerations. A woman cannot go out into the street or mingle with men due to social considerations...

"The man's role in society, [on the other hand,] has developed. He is no longer a warrior, a shepherd, or a farmer. The country... has become a state with modern institutions and a modern economy, a member of the international community. At the same time, women have remained prisoners of an antiquated mentality, which holds that the woman's place is in the home, and that if we need women [for work,] it is preferable to import them from abroad.

"How can a country formulate a plan for development and accept [the principles of] international organizations – such as [those promoting] human rights and protecting women from discrimination – and at the same time act only in accordance with 'social considerations,' and refuse to develop and join the world around it? How can these [social] considerations take precedence over all economic, political, and cultural considerations?...

"Eliminating the Saudi woman from the elections process and from taking part in the [various] realms of public life constitutes a threat not only to the woman herself, but to society [as a whole]. For it is this isolated entity [i.e. the woman] who raises generations of young boys and girls. How can a woman inculcate in her children and students a sense of belonging and responsibility toward the homeland, when she herself feels no sense of belonging or responsibility toward [the homeland] and its development?..."[7]

Saudi Columnist: I Will Boycott the Next Elections

In an article titled "Why I Decided Not to Participate in the Next Municipal Elections," published in the Saudi daily Al-Watan, columnist 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Wabli wrote: "The day I went with my son... to vote in the last municipal elections was one of the happiest days [of my life]... because I got [the chance] to actualize my citizenship by taking part in electing my representatives among the decision makers and among those who oversee public initiatives and public funds, and my voice as a voter – a citizen – was taken into account..

"Before we left to go vote, we sat at home with my wife... and daughters... and I lectured them... on the importance of this great national day for the citizens and the homeland, and what we should expect from it.

"When I concluded my impressive lecture... my wife asked me: 'How can you speak of decisive national achievements when half of society is not taking part in them, or, more accurately, when [half of society] is forbidden from taking part in them?!'

"This question was indeed difficult for me... I answered her: 'Those responsible for the elections said that time [constraints] had not allowed them to organize voting centers for women, and they promised that women would certainly participate in the next municipal elections... Don't be so pessimistic...'

"[In the end,] I decided that I would not vote in the April 23 municipal elections, and told my wife that I would not participate in them unless she [voted] with me. However, the senior officials in the election commission have already announced that she will not vote – neither with me, nor beside me, nor even behind me...

"They promise and promise, and we put our trust in their promises, but these promises are insincere, and [the officials ultimately] forsake us. [This behavior] comes as no surprise... when their promises have to do with the issue of restoring to women their usurped rights, such as their right to work in commerce, drive a vehicle, and other indispensable national legal rights...

"The claim of the election commission chairman, i.e. that [the reason for the ban] on women's participation in the elections is a lack of voting booths, is easily rebutted: Why shouldn't women vote at the same booths [used by] the men, once the latter are done voting?... You denied women's right to vote and to run for office, you exhausted our [patience] with your [insincere] apologies, and you led us to trust in insincere promises. However, you will never prevent us from making decisions to protect the rights of our wives and daughters, who are an inseparable part of our own rights and honor..."[8]

The Ban Contradicts the Country's Development Efforts

In an article in the Saudi daily Al-Watan, Saudi columnist Sattam 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Muqran wrote: "...The chairman of the Municipal Election Commission did not explain what special arrangements were [required to allow] women to participate in the municipal elections, or what the obstacles were which the committee had to overcome in order to implement [these arrangements]. His declaration pointed to the fact that the law does not distinguish between men and women, and does not prohibit women from participating [in elections] – which means that the law allows women to participate in them. In addition, the country's... development plan emphasizes developing the active participation of the Saudi woman... and strengthening this participation...

"Therefore, the lack of female participation in the municipal elections, both as candidates and as voters, [can] be considered one of the greatest obstacles hindering the realization of the general goals of the development plan... This [can] be considered [a move that] contravenes the country's policy to involve women in its development process. It would seem that there is a tendency to completely exclude women from participating [in the elections], out of social and cultural considerations, not out of organizational or administrative considerations, as was claimed..."[9]





[1] The elections are to be held in several stages, starting April 23. A similar debate about women's participation took place before Saudi Arabia's first municipal elections in 2005. Then, too, women were eventually banned from participating. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.206, "A Saudi Public Debate on Women's Participation in the Municipal Elections," February 11, 2005, A Saudi Public Debate on Women's Participation in the Municipal Elections.

[2] Al-Hayat (Saudi Arabia), March 27, 2011.

[3], March 12, 2011.

[4] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 29, 2011.

[5], March 31, 2011.

[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 22, 2011.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), March 26, 2011. Columnist Dalia Gazzaz wrote, in a similar vein: "...Preventing a woman from participating in the municipal elections, for the second time, means not recognizing her as a full citizen who has the right to participate in social processes in her homeland; it means not recognizing a woman as a person, regardless of her gender; it means marketing and establishing a view that refuses to recognize woman as an independent entity..." Al-Hayat (Saudi Arabia), March 30, 2011.

[8] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), April 1, 2011.

[9] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), April 4, 2011.

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