- Female candidates are allowed in national vote for first time
- Women hail a milestone in a country where life is restricted
As women get their first taste of a Saudi election campaign, there’s no escaping the Islamic kingdom’s strict segregation rules.
When would-be councilor Randa Baraja spoke at a Riyadh hotel on Dec. 1, the men in a hall next door listened to her plans for more youth centers and better childcare through speakers as she addressed female voters in a separate room.
If elected, her goal is to create "a perfect neighborhood for a better life," Baraja said later on a Twitter page.
While marking another milestone as the royal family gradually eases restrictions on the role of women in society and the economy, the municipal election scene betrays how the changes are more cosmetic than seismic. The fledgling candidates can argue for better parking facilities or hospital improvements, yet women are still banned from driving and need a male guardian’s permission to have some surgical procedures.
"The municipal elections are a first step that may lead to further reforms in the future, but at this point you have to be less than dazzled by it," said Nabeel Khoury, a former U.S. State Department official who is now senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "It’s going to be a long haul. The limitations of this step far outweigh any advantages for women."
Female inclusion in the vote, the only nationwide election in an absolute monarchy with no political parties and where activists are suppressed, was ordered by King Abdullah before his death in January. He also appointed women to the country’s 150-member Consultative Council and opened more areas of the labor market to them.
It remains to be seen how many women get elected in the 284 municipalities. Candidates are not allowed to address potential voters of the opposite sex but can use segregated halls with audio and visual links. Women aren’t allowed display their photos, so all candidates are banned from using them during the election, said Jedai Al-Qahtani, chairman of the municipal elections executive committee.
Among the 7,000 candidates, men outnumber women by about six to one. The female electorate is also dwarfed. Of the 1.48 million voters registered for the Dec. 12 ballot, 130,637 are women. The country has a population of about 28 million including foreign nationals, according to the CIA Factbook. It ranked 161st out of 167 countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest Democracy Index.
“The figures are good considering that these elections are a new concept to people,” Al-Qahtani said at a Dec. 6 press conference.
While the local councils have little power or influence, the polls are "important in the Saudi context," said Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi historian who is the general coordinator of Baladi campaign that’s working on women’s empowerment. "The councils will be the only institution that will reflect the decisions of all the people, not just half the population.”
Expanding women’s rights comes at a turbulent time for the nation dominated by the conservative Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam.
As well as conflicts in Yemen and Syria, the kingdom is facing domestic financial challenges with the oil price close to $40, pushing the country into a deficit for the first time since 2009. Living and housing costs are rising while the government has delayed payments to government contractors and ordered a series of cost-cutting measures, including a freeze on new construction and bans on buying new vehicles or furniture.
To buoy the economy, female workers are entering the labor force in record numbers -- a surge of 48 percent since 2010, though they still only make up 16 percent of Saudis with jobs, last year’s official labor report showed.
At least the election represents more progress, says Riyadh voter Sarah Sulaiman.
"To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I understand the elections," the 29-year-old said. But going "into those voting booths and casting my vote is a big step forward for women. It’s nice to feel like your voice, your opinion matters."