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memri
December 11, 2015 No.
1210

An Historical First For The Saudi Kingdom: Women Participate As Voters And Candidates In Municipal Elections

By: E. Ezrahi*

Introduction

On December 12, 2015, Saudi Arabia will, for the third time, hold municipal elections; for the first time, women will participate in the elections as both voters and candidates, within the confines of shari'a law, in accordance with a decision by the previous king, 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-Aziz.[1] Likewise, the decision was made for these elections to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, increase the number of elected council members from half to two-thirds of the total number of seats;[2] and expand the municipal councils' powers.[3] According to reports by the elections committee, 130,637 women are now registered to vote, as opposed to 1,355,840 male voters; they thereby constitute 8.7% of the registered voters. Additionally, 979 women have filed their candidacies, as opposed to 5,938 male candidates; the women therefore constitute 14.1% of the 6,917candidates.[4]

In accordance with shari'a law, every stage of the elections process - from registration and preparation of voters and candidates to the campaigns and up to Election Day itself - must be conducted with absolute separation of men and women. Thus, men and women will have separate election centers and separate candidate preparatory sessions, and every woman who wants to campaign to men must appoint a man to speak on her behalf at the men's election centers.[5]


A first for Saudi Arabia: Women are allowed to vote in municipal elections (source: Ajel.sa, August 25, 2015)

During the electoral process, the Saudi press published articles arguing that such restrictions greatly encumber the electoral participation of many women as candidates or voters. Additionally, a debate was ongoing among Saudi clerics over whether women should even be allowed to participate in elections. Those in favor argued that women should vote for candidates they think will do the best job of serving the state, the residents, and the religion, and that according to the religion, her relatives or tribesmen may not sell her vote to anyone else. Those opposed stated that women cannot participate in elections because of the prohibition on men and women mixing, and because it will lead to Saudi Arabia's Westernization; they also stressed that women are subordinate to men and belong at home.

Saudi media discourse recently focused on the issue of the women's status in Saudi Arabia in general and their participation in the elections in particular. Alongside articles that criticized the discrimination against women in the Saudi kingdom as expressed by their low social status, and the restrictions and hostility that they faced, other articles praised women's participation, and stressed that women are qualified to deal with public affairs, and that their participation in elections is "natural" because they constitute a central factor in making decisions.[6] This report will review Saudi press coverage on women's participation in the municipal elections.

Articles In The Saudi Press On Obstacles Facing Women Participating In The Elections

Several articles in the Saudi press highlighted obstacles facing women participating in the elections as both voters and candidates.

The articles, which also featured interviews with some of the dozens of women candidates women who had quit their electoral races in the local council elections, setting out a number of factors- some connected directly to conservative Saudi society - that had contributed to their decision to drop out. For example, the articles claimed that patriarchal Saudi society raises questions regarding women's leadership capabilities, and is doubtful regarding women's participation in elections; this, they said, discourages women from running at all. They also state that many in Saudi society, also because of religious rulings, believe that women's duties are restricted to family matters and childrearing, and that men and women must not mix, and that for these reasons women should not participate in the elections.

Other reasons women encountered difficulties had to do with the elections themselves, such as lack of proper training for women electoral participation, who, unlike the men, are new to the political scene; difficulties in obtaining information on election protocol, because no one had been appointed to be in charge of guiding and directing them; and insufficient time given them to file candidacies and to campaign. Other restrictions included a requirement that women had to campaign in a private location in their area - meaning renting a venue; a requirement limiting women candidates' movements between areas; and a requirement that a woman candidate's muharram[7] act on her behalf in meetings with male voters or that she hire a man to act in their stead.

Additionally, many of the women who dropped out of their races said that they had been prevented from speaking directly to the voters - meaning that they would likely receive votes only from people they already knew, making it pointless to invest funds in their campaigns. They said that from the outset they had more meager financial means than men, who earn more and who also receive financial support from elements and institutions that nurture a relationship with them in anticipation of future rewards.[8]


The stages for a woman filing her candidacy for municipal elections (source: Al-Jazirah, Saudi Arabia, June 17, 2015) 

Debate Among Saudi Clerics On Women's Participation In Elections

At the same time, a debate was underway among Saudi clerics regarding the religious permissibility of women participating in the elections. Sheikh 'Abdallah Al-Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, which is the official Saudi religious institution, supported the women's efforts.  He even stressed that a woman should vote for whoever she thinks will best serve the state, the residents, and the religion, while warning women's relatives and tribesmen to refrain from selling the women's votes to those not worthy of being elected to the municipal councils, since this is prohibited by the religion.[9]

Conversely, other clerics launched a campaign against women in the elections, with the aim, they said, of thwarting women's efforts to participate and to send a message to the state that Saudi society "opposes women's participation in running public affairs, and that it would rather they stayed home." Prominent among them were Sheikh 'Abd Al-Muhsin Al-'Abbad Al-Badr, a lecturer at the Al-Nabawi Mosque in Medina and one of the country's leading clerics, and senior Saudi sheikh 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barak. Al-Badr issued a fatwa banning women from participating in the elections because "women are not appointers nor appointees," but are subordinate to men" and thus cannot be candidates or voters and "should remain in their homes." According to press reports, this fatwa had a major impact on women who declined to register to vote during the allotted period.[10]

Sheikh Al-Barak issued a fatwa prohibiting Muslim women from serving on municipal councils, whether by election or by appointment, and also prohibited voting for women candidates. He said that this is not allowed because of the "the lascivious acts" that are banned as part of the prohibition on men and women mixing, and because this brings Westernization to Saudi Arabia. Al-Barak stressed that gender mixing, which is now common in Muslim countries, is part of a plot to Westernize Muslims and turn them into infidels. He added that this plot is rooted in "the Christian occupation of many Islamic nations" and stressed that the West and the UN, which he called "the global colonialist organization," see women as their most powerful means of accomplishing this goal. Al-Barak warned women against constituting "the doorway through which evil enters Saudi Arabia" and of the consequences that their participation in the elections would have in this world and the next.[11]


Advertisements urging citizens to vote in the municipal elections (sources: Right, Twasul.info, June 29, 2015, Left, Almowaten.net, August 12, 2015) 

Editorials: Women Have Proved To Be Competent Shura Council Members - And The Same Will Be True For The Municipal Councils

Together with the numerous reports on difficulties that women face in these elections both as voters and as candidates, the Saudi press published numerous articles praising this process and viewing it as a step forward in improving the status of women in the country. This was expressed in a December 3, 2015 article by Ayman Al-Hammad, an editorial writer for the official Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, who praised Saudi women's enthusiastic response and serious approach to the municipal elections. Al-Hammad stressed that women are qualified to be involved in public affairs and that if women are already on the Shura Council, then it is natural for them to both run for office and vote in municipal elections as well. He wrote:

"The interesting thing about the municipal elections, in which Saudi women are investing all their energy as both voters and candidates, are their seriousness, reliability, and determination, which became apparent early on in workshops and seminars across Saudi Arabia. The women candidates and voters flocked [to these workshops and seminars] in order to closely acquaint themselves with this new experience. The number [of women] - over 14,000 women voting and some 1,000 women candidates - who decided to actualize their rights in this process reflects maturity, aspiration, and will on the part of the women, who believe that their participation in these elections is natural, since if women are in the highest political body, that is, the Shura Council, then they should certainly be on these [municipal] councils...

"The women voters' commitment to go and vote is expected to put more than [one woman] candidate on a [local] council, and they are perfectly capable and qualified for this. Moreover, several candidates are already members of special leadership councils. Women's involvement in public affairs is essential. Women participate in everyday life, so they are entitled to participate in shaping this life, as opposed to men alone ruling the [municipal] arena - as if it did not concern the 49.1% of Saudi citizens [who are women]."[12]

Similarly, in an editorial, the Saudi daily Al-Sharq stressed that Saudi women have become a central factor in decision-making, and even expressed the hope that women will be elected to the municipal councils and participate in decision-making as they already do in the Shura Council, for example. The editorial states: "We expect women to make it to the  municipal councils, just as they made it to chambers of commerce and to the Shura Council, as active members handling issues relating to the state, not just ones that concern women. Saudi women are now a central factor alongside men in decision-making; this is clear evidence of the further authority they will be granted in the near future, as part of King [Salman's] government, which has aided women in all matters relating to them and supported their demand to reach the highest level in accordance with shari'a..."[13]


Women employees at the Saudi stock exchange participate in a workshop to promote awareness of the importance of voting in the municipal elections (source: Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 16, 2015) 

Senior Saudi Journalist: Women's Voter Participation Is A Giant Step For Saudi Arabia

Likewise, 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, the former editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and former director of Al-Arabiya TV, praised Saudi women's participation in the municipal elections, calling it a "huge step" for the kingdom, no matter what the results - because the important point was their participation. He wrote: "It makes us proud to see Saudi women take part in elections for the first time. There are 979 women participating as candidates in the upcoming municipal elections. That is a big number, and it's a huge step forward in a country that, according to some international organizations, is one of the most excluding of women

"Saudi women have today achieved significant progress in several fields. They have 30 seats in the Shura Council, after they were granted a 20 percent quota. These women have managed to positively contribute to the council's discussions, ideas, and votes. The council is also currently reviewing all regulations which are considered obstructive to women's rights and work.

"Regarding the upcoming municipal elections, women will not only participate as voters but also as candidates running for this public office, something that was previously exclusive to men. As I've said in a previous article, what's important is not the result but that women take part and participate.

"Even if none of these female candidates win in the elections, their participation alone is tantamount to an important declaration in this country's present and future. No society can move forward when it obstructs the presence of half of its population due to inherited governmental regulations or traditions, especially given that Saudi women have overcome many challenges and achieved success in educational and scientific fields and in the labor market both inside and outside the kingdom. It's also not right for there to be more female than male students across all educational stages, and yet for women to be kept marginal in society

"This is a social struggle, and I am happy that the government has taken the women's side and involved them in the elections, thus sending a clear message to everyone..."[14]   

*E. Ezrahi is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


Endnotes:

[1] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 822, Saudi Arabia: Renewed Debate on Women's Suffrage, April 13, 2012.

[2] The remaining third (previously half) are appointed by the kingdom.

[3] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia)  November 29, 2015.

[4] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), December 7, 2015.

[5] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), August 18, 2015; Intekhab.gov.sa, August 2, 2015; Majales.momra.gov.sa, July 30, 2015.

[6] See for example the article by Qinan Al-Ghamdi in Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 1, 2015; the articles by Samar Al-Muqrin  in Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), November 11, 21, and 25 and December 2 and 9, 2015; and the article by Yasser Al-Bhijan on Kolalwatn.net, November 5, 2015.

[7] Saudi women are subordinate to their muharram, their male guardian who can be their husband, father, grandfather, brother, or even son. The women require permission of their muharram, or that he accompany them, for almost every activity in daily life, and to travel abroad.

[8] Al-Hayat (London), August 17, 2015; 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), October 27, 2015; Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 30, 2015. The women also stated that men from Saudi tribes have joined together and created voting blocs, and rented homes, for members of their tribes in the various provinces and villages so that they can qualify as voters in those districts. They said that it was pointless to run for election when the outcome was already known in advance.

[9] Al-Iqtisadiyya

[10] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 31, 2015.

[11] Albraak.com, August 25, 2015.

[12] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), December 3, 2015.

[13] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), December 8, 2015.

[14] Alarabiya.net, December 1, 2015.