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memri
February 11, 2005 No.
206

A Saudi Public Debate on Women's Participation in the Municipal Elections

By: Y. Admon*

Saudi Arabia's first ever municipal elections took place February 10, 2005. They are being carried out in three phases, and are slated to continue until April 21, 2005. In advance of the elections, there was much public debate about the question of women's suffrage and women's candidacy for public office.

Even after the August 2004 release of the municipal elections regulations, ambiguity remained regarding whether women could participate in the elections, either as voters or as candidates. While the regulations did not explicitly state that women have the right to vote or to be elected, at the same time they did not rule it out.

In light of this ambiguity, some Saudi writers expressed optimism regarding women's participation in the upcoming municipal elections – and several women submitted their candidacy for office. The ambiguity was cleared up when Saudi Interior Minister Nayef bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz stated that it is "out of the question." However, the public debate on the issue has continued. Incidentally, it should be noted that women recently participated in the Commerce and Industrial Chambers elections for the first time. [1]

The following is a summary of views about women's participation in the upcoming elections:

Ambiguity in the Election Regulations on Women's Participation in the Municipal Elections

On August 10, 2004, Municipal Affairs Minister Prince Mut'ib bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz published the municipal elections regulations, which had been approved October 14, 2003 by the Saudi cabinet. The wording of the regulations left vague the issue of women's participation as voters or as candidates in the elections, since the sections relating to the matter were written in the masculine. For example, article three stated that "Every citizen enjoys the right to vote if he meets the following conditions: 1) to be at least 21 years of age according to hijri dates; 2) not to be an operative military officer; 3) to be living within the municipal zones for at least 12 months before the voting date." Similarly, article one stated that a candidate "is every voter who meets the conditions to run for a seat on the council and whose name appears in the voters lists." [2]

Following the ambiguous wording of the elections regulations, a public debate ensued on the legal and religious aspects of whether women had the right to vote or to be elected to public office.

The Debate on Women's Participation: Yes to Women's Participation in Elections

Dr. Suheila Zein Al-'Abidin, an expert in Islamic history and society at the Saudi National Human Rights Association, stated that women do indeed have the right to participate in the elections, and that this right is rooted in Islam. She told the London Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "There was much social awareness during the early period of Islam, which showed an understanding of appointing Muslim women to important positions. [Women's participation] in Saudi elections for the posts of mayor and municipal secretary does not contradict the position of the Caliph Omar bin Al-Khattab, who appointed female Companions of the Prophet such as Shifaa bint 'Abdallah, of the 'Udai tribe, in [the city of] Al-Madina, and Asmaa bint Nahik in Mecca to oversee the marketplace…" [3]

In an article she published in the Saudi government daily Al-Watan, Zein Al-'Abidin wrote: "The woman is a citizen like the man. Rejecting her membership in the local councils is like stripping her of one of her civil rights. Since Islam's beginning, women had the Shari'a -given right to participate in elections, and this right was implemented in the capital of Islam, [the city of] Al-Madina, as well as in Mecca. It is amazing that today we see this right stripped from women in the name of Islam, particularly in this region where Islam was born, in the 15th century of the Hijra. Similarly, the rejection of this right is incompatible with the path of the reforms towards which Saudi Arabia is rapidly marching in all areas – including the area of political reform…" [4]

Saudi attorney Kateb Al-Shammarisaid that the election regulations "do not rule out women's participation, and the word 'resident' that appears in the regulations means man and woman alike." [5]

In her column in the Saudi government daily Al-Watan, Maisoun Al-Dakhil wrote: "Were the reference to man alone, it would be [explicitly] mentioned [in the regulations] – as it appears in the Kuwaiti election law that limits the right to vote and to be elected in Kuwaiti parliamentary elections to men [only]… The Saudi regulations use the word 'resident,' referring to both man and woman… Similarly, the election regulations are compatible with what appears in the Arab and international agreements that Saudi Arabia has signed and ratified – for example, the Arab Human Rights Convention, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)." [6]

No to Women's Participation in Elections

Opponents of women's suffrage and election to public office discussed the legalities involved. Saudi legal counselor Majed Qaroub said that "Section Three refers to the man and not to the woman," and therefore the elections regulations did not permit women to participate. [7]

Some also claimed that women's participation in the elections goes against the principles of Shari'a. Sheikh Dr. 'Abdallah Faqih stated: "All the ulema have agreed that the imam must be a man, because the Prophet said 'A nation ruled by a woman will not succeed,' and this was related by Muhammad Ibn Isma'il Al-Bukhari [in his collections of reliable Hadiths]. [This ban] is because this post is a heavy burden that demands great capabilities – which the woman usually does not possess…

"No texts appear to contradict this Hadith in either the Koran or the Sunna. Furthermore, there are texts that support this ruling, such as the words [of Allah in the Koran], 'Men are superior to women' [34:4] and the words, 'Bring two witnesses from among your men, and if there are not two men, bring a man and two women' [82:2].

"A woman is prohibited from holding high office, because doing so requires mingling with men, and being alone with them. Also, she must bear a heavy burden, which is not suitable for the character of the woman. [However,] the woman can bear and direct small positions, such as directing a hospital or a school, since Omar ibn Al-Khattab appointed Al-Shifaa bint 'Abdallah Al-'Adawiyya superintendent of weights and measures in the Al-Madina marketplace, and this is mentioned by Al-Hafez ibn Hajar in the biography of Al-Shifaa. But this is on condition that there is no prohibited mingling or being alone [with men]." [8]

Saudi Women Submit Candidacy for Election

After the election regulations were published, five Saudi women submitted their candidacy: educational counselor Fatma Al-Khariji; engineer Nadia Bakharji; social activist Najat Al-Shafi'i; businesswoman Shadiya Al-Bayat, director of the Women's Branch of the Saudi-British Bank in Al-Qatif; and Faten Al-Bunduqji.

Shadiya Al-Bayat of the city of Al-Qatif in the Eastern District told www.elaph.com: "I submitted my candidacy for the municipal elections because this is a national right anchored in the text of the Elections Law that gave suffrage to every Saudi citizen regardless of gender, and because our monotheistic religion, Islam, permits women to submit their candidacy and to actively participate in building the homeland… The woman is half of society, and she plays the role of building and developing the human being, because she is the mother of the human being."

Candidate Najat Al-Shafi'i of Al-Madina told www.elaph.com: "I declared my candidacy for the municipal elections as a service to my beloved and dear homeland, and in order to raise the level of women's participation in public life, in order to increase their social influence and in order to personally benefit from the constructive democratic experience…" [9]

Al-Khariji and Bakharji, who submitted their candidacies for elections in Riyadh, stated that they did so because they "as yet have received no [proof] indicating that women cannot submit their candidacy for these elections" and that their move was a kind of "national duty not restricted to male citizens [and forbidden to] female citizens." Al-Khariji called on all women "to support women's candidacies for the councils, because women have the greatest capability to understand the aspirations and problems of women."

At the same time, Bakharji said she would "respect the will and temporary plan of the country were she not permitted to submit her candidacy this year." [10]

Saudi Interior Minister Decides: Women Cannot Participate in Elections

On October 10, 2004, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz cleared up the ambiguity. In an announcement to the press during a visit to Kuwait, he said: "I think that women's participation is out of the question." [11]

Prince Mansour bin Mut'ib bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, Chairman of the General Committee for Municipal Elections, told a committee press conference: "Taking into account the [too-] short period following the announcement of the [elections] regulations, and taking into account that we have over 187 local councils in all regions, there is difficulty in implementing women's participation in the elections. Similarly, it is difficult to provide what is required [in order to make possible] women's participation in this short space of time." [12]

Al-Madina District Governor Prince Abd Al-'Aziz bin Muhammad Al-Muqrin said: "Women have no right to vote or to submit candidacy, but their participation [in elections] will be examined for the next elections, in another four years." [13]

The female candidates accepted the interior minister's decision with understanding. Candidate Nadia Bakharji responded: "From the outset, we have said that we would respect the decisions of the country, and we sought to set out temporary plans to define the mechanism by which women would be able to participate in the next stages [of the elections].

"Following the publication of the decision to postpone [women's] participation, we will continue to monitor the elections; we will support the suitable elected [officials]; and we will follow the resolutions published by the councils. Similarly, we will submit proposals in the expectation of an opportunity to participate [in future elections]."

Candidate Najat Al-Shafi'i said: "The officials' announcements have a positive aspect, as they have clarified that women's participation is indeed legal but that it has merely been postponed due to lack of mechanisms for implementing women's participation at this time. There is understanding regarding this idea. If there are problems, women can participate in solving these problems and in enabling women's participation in future elections."

Candidate Shadiya Al-Bayyat said: "It is not an issue of winning or losing. [The aim of our candidacy was] to accustom society to hearing the voice and demands of the woman." [14]

In an interview to the Saudi daily 'Ukaz,Sheikh Abd Al-Muhsin Al-'Abikan, an advisor in the Saudi Justice Ministry, said, in response to a question about women's participation in the elections: "If the woman acts in a manner which does not conflict with religion and Islamic shari'a or with her modesty, nobody can prevent [her participation], because the Islamic religion is a religion of development, facility and convenience, and is appropriate for any time and place, but some of the people want to present it as regressive and closed. This is not right." In response to a direct question whether there is no harm in women's participation in the elections, he said: "Of course, if [the woman] adheres to all the shari'a principles, she has a right to participate in the elections…" [15]

At the same time, others protested against the government's decision not to allow women to vote or to be elected to office. The Saudi Center for Human Rights issued a communiqué titled "Why Do You Plunder [Women's] Rights?" that stated:

"Preventing the Saudi woman from realizing her rights is a violation of her rights, not only according to international criteria but also to Islamic [criteria], because Muslim women could already participate in decision-making during the time of the Prophet. This does not contradict the Islamic principles – which are constantly being changed in accordance with the interests of the extremist groups in society." [16]

In her column in the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah, Fatma Al-'Uteibi wrote: "The Ministry of Municipal Affairs gave no convincing reasons for rejecting women's participation either as candidates or as voters in the first round of municipal elections… If there is to be a new experience [i.e. elections], this experience will be new for both man and woman, and we must allow this experience to take place, with all its ramifications, for both man and woman. Then the experience will grow, improve, and be rid of its shortcomings regarding the two genders…

"[The Ministry of Municipal Affairs] claimed that time is tight, and that women's participation requires arrangements for which there is no time. How can there be enough time for the arrangements for the men but not for the women? This is unacceptable...

"As long as we aspire to improve our image in the world, we must overcome all bureaucratic and administrative problems...

"The women in this [Saudi] homeland are hoping for a firm decision to end this debate around a particular point of the regulations on municipal elections –which is that every citizen over 21 has the right to vote and to be elected. Pushing women aside is an explicit violation of this section, with regard to both the text and its meaning – unless all women in the Kingdom have not yet reached the age of 21…" [17]

* Yifat Admon is a Research Fellow at MEMRI

Endnotes:

[1] Al-Hayat (London), November 25, 2004.

[2] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), October 8, 2004. http://saudielection.com/en/rules_body.php?id=15

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 22, 2004.

[4] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 25, 2004.

[5] Al-Hayat (Saudi Arabia), August 12, 2004.

[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 18, 2004.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), August 12, 2004.

[8] Al-Arabiyya TV( UAE), www.alarabiya.tv/Articlep.aspx?p=6798 //: http

[9] www.elaph.com, October 19, 2004.

[10] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), October 1, 2004.

[11] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), October 11, 2004.

[12] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), October 13, 2004.

[13] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 23, 2004.

[14] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), October 14, 2004.

[15] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), December 4, 2004.

[16] From the Saudi Center for Human Rights website: http://hrinfp.net/saudi/saudihr/pr040800.shtml

[17] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), October 18, 2004.