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International Women’s Issues: Voting in Saudi Arabia

When I first emailed our fearless editor, eagerly volunteering to write a weekly post on international women’s issues, I didn’t consider at the time the breadth of the topic. Women, as we know, are 51% of the world’s population, so all issues can be seen as women’s issues, from farming to war to childbirth. So where to begin? One main goal for me is preventing this column from turning into poverty porn ““ “Look how hard it is for women in X country to do Y!” is not going to be the main push here. While I’m sure I will sometimes be looking at certain challenges women face, it’s going to be with an eye toward the successes and advancements women have made in the face of their particular self-identified adversity. Additionally, I’m going to be looking at things at a country level or smaller, and rotate regions on a weekly basis. For example, if this week focuses on abortion rights in Mexico, next week it’ll be micro-lending institutions in Bangladesh. I think that some weeks there will be a tie-in to current events, but not always. Finally, if there’s a topic you’d love to know more about, please let me know in the comments. I am most definitely taking requests.

All right, then. This week, to start things off, we’ll stick with current events, because something momentous happened a few days ago ““ women in Saudi Arabia were granted the right to vote.  That is how it was reported in most major news sources. Women were granted, or given, this right. Like a present! A surprise!

Um. No.

Activists in Saudi Arabia have been fighting for women’s rights, including the right for women to vote, for at least 20 years. This is not something that was granted. It is something that was earned after a long fight. The overall issue of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is too big to examine here, but I do want to point out that it is incredibly hard to advocate for change in a country that severely restricts your right to movement and dictates how you must appear in public, amongst other measures. Still, some women in Saudi Arabia protest, some are activists, and they have won a victory. Let’s look at what it is and how they did it.

First of all, voting in general is relatively new in Saudi Arabia. Since the creation of the modern state of Saudi Arabia in 1932, the country has been an absolute monarchy, ruled by a family that has controlled various parts of the country for 250 years. These guys are entrenched. Since 1932, there have been only three elections ““ in 1939, in some cities in the 1960s, and in 2005 ““ and each time, these were only elections for seats on various municipal councils. In their current incarnation, half of the municipal council’s members are elected and half are appointed by the government. The municipal councils are under the authority of a government ministry, though they do have some measure of control over local budgets and city projects. In other words, this is the only measure of democracy in Saudi Arabia, and it’s pretty meager.

Still, women are fighting for every opportunity they can get, no matter the size. When the 2005 elections were first announced, there was no mention of women being forbidden from holding office, and indeed, three women announced their intention to run for office before it was made explicitly clear that they would not be allowed to do so. Logistical and administrative reasons were blamed ““ many women do not have ID cards in Saudi Arabia, a requirement for voting, because you must show an unveiled face for the photo on the card. According to election officials, it also would not be possible to train enough women to run women-only registration and voting centers in time for the elections. So while these issues were identified in 2005, they are the exact same excuses given as the reason that women are not voting in the council election happening today. Yes, while women were granted the right to vote, it doesn’t apply to today’s election, but only the one after it ““ in 2015. The September 29, 2011 elections were initially scheduled for 2009, so it may be even later when women vote for the first time.

From April to June of this year, during the registration period for the current elections, as a sign of both optimism and protest, women have been showing up at the registration centers by the dozen and demanding the right to participate, to register to vote. While this week’s announcement reaffirms the fact that women will not be voting this time around, the women who agitated for this right, simply by showing up, paved the way for the actual registration that will take place in four years. Additionally, over 60 leading Saudi intellectuals and activists have called for a boycott of today’s election because it excludes women, hoping for a show of solidarity.

When looking for information on the women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia, one name comes up repeatedly ““ Wajeha al-Huwaider. Al-Huwaider is best known in the West for a youtube video in which she is driving a car ““ an illegal act for a woman in Saudi Arabia. She has been silenced repeatedly by the Saudi government. Once a newspaper reporter, now no one will publish her work in-country. In 2007, she co-founded the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia, a group that works on all aspects of women’s rights, from driving to outlawing child marriages.  Most notably, they submitted a petition with over 1,000 signatures to the king, asking for the legalization of women’s driving. They received no response, but were warned against making any formal demonstrations. When asked about women’s newly-earned right to vote, she said, “Women’s voices will finally be heard. Now it is time to remove other barriers like not allowing women to drive cars and not being able to function, to live a normal life without male guardians.”

Therein lies the true significance of women’s right to vote ““ the hope that this is just the beginning. That with equal voting rights may come better legal standing, the right to drive, and other liberties that greatly impact the lives of women in Saudi Arabia. Voting is a great start, and a hard-earned victory, but it is most important as a sign of things to come.

Sources:

“A Conversation With Saudi Women’s Rights Campaigner Wajeha al-Huwaider,” by Katha Pollitt, The Nation, June 27, 2011 http://www.thenation.com/article/161224/conversation-saudi-womens-rights-campaigner-wajeha-al-huwaider

“Saudi Arabia,” The National Democratic Institute,  http://www.ndi.org/node/14047

“Saudi Elections, Women Seek Vote,” by Asma Alsharif, Reuters, April 26, 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/04/26/us-saudi-election-idUSTRE73P1GZ20110426

“Saudi Government Bans Women’s Suffrage,” Associated Press, October 11, 2004, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6228405/ns/world_news/t/saudi-government-bans-womens-suffrage/

“Saudi King Gives Women the Right to Vote,” by Asma Alsharif, Reuters,  September 25, 2011 http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/09/25/us-saudi-king-women-idUSTRE78O10Y20110925

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