The historic election for Saudi women
THE municipal election, the other day in Saudi Arabia represents a commendable milestone in the history of the country, especially the women’s struggles to have access and presence in a theocratic society. The event, which for the first time featured women voting and being voted for, is also a marked positive for advocates of gender equality, but more importantly, for recognition of women’s rights and ability to contribute to national and international development. Not only should the Saudi authorities deepen the first ever phenomenon, they should serve to encourage countries reluctant or unwilling to acknowledge women as vital participants in nation building.
The wave of democratisation sweeping across the world, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s has been slow but steady. But the fortune of democracy has been so lucky in some regions of the world especially in the Arab world which seems to present a wall of cultural relativism, liberal democracy being read as entirely as a Western project compacted in the so-called liberal internationalism.
This seeks to expound the ambits of western influence on a global basis. Saudi Arabia, the spiritual headquarters of the Moslem world, typifies the resistance to Western cultural foray in the name of democracy. Nevertheless, the quest by a people all over the world to be heard and have a say in the affairs of their country knows no religious bars; and the Saudi monarch appears to be sensitive to this dynamic. Obviously, being in control of the processes leading to women activism in government is less risky than allowing the Arab spring type of implosion.
On December 12, the Saudi people were given the opportunity to elect officials of the municipal councils. In the historic election, women, almost at the receiving end of rigid religious restrictions, exercised their franchise for the first time. They stood not only for elections but also voted. More than 900 women ran for a place in the 2,100 seats in about 284 councils in which about 6,000 men competed for the same positions. While about 130,000 women had registered to vote, the men’s tally was put at 1.35 million. All said and done, about 18 women were elected into seats that spread across cities like Jeddah, Tabuk, Ahsaa and Qatif.
There were views that this conservative figure would have been upped but for some bureaucratic obstacles such as difficulties proving identity and residency and a limited number of registration centres. Also, female candidates were barred from speaking to male voters and were required to separate campaign offices. However, this has been hailed as a victory for women’s long struggle for suffrage. It is to be noted that the councils’ powers are restricted to local affairs including responsibility for streets, public gardens and refuse collection.
Notwithstanding its limitations, the election is a clear watershed for women’s struggles for fair and impartial treatment in a society dogged by Islamic religion, which incidentally does not seek to undermine the female gender. At least, Saudi women have been able to perform their human and democratic rights of expressing their political preference and desire as they cast their votes for the first time. Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch described the move to allow women to vote as a step forward for equality in the male-dominated kingdom and forward march toward greater participation in public life.
This electoral dawn is the culmination of incremental policy on women empowerment by the late Saudi Monarch, King Abdullah. The proposition to grant women some franchise was broached in 2005 and was followed up by a decree in 2011 by the King to the effect that women are allowed to vote in municipal elections and stand as candidates. In 2013, he also moved to allow about 20 per cent of seats in the Consultative Council (Shura) that advises the King and proposes law, to be filled with women. Subsequently, about 30 women were appointed to the council. Besides, women have begun to access public positions, outside of political domain. Women are allowed to hold positions on boards of chambers of commerce. In 2008, two women were elected to the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, academia and cabinet-level position. Government sources puts the number of women in the Saudi workforce at about 400, 000; a substantial increase over the 2004 figure put at 23,000.
The first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia took place in the mid-20s in the Hijaz cities of Mecca, Medina, Jeddah, Yanbu and Taif, when local governments were established to replace Ottoman and Hashemite rule. Municipal elections were held in 1954, 1962, 2005 and 2011 respectively. Notably, in none of these were women allowed to vote or stand for office.
Importantly, there are those who see this development of women voting and running in the election as another phase towards Westernisation. But the real point is that, enfranchising women, as the Saudi authorities did, is nothing but a strategic response to global development. Countries around Saudi Arabia have given roles to women and have somewhat liberalised their political processes. Countries like Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar are examples in this regard. Qatar women even fly combat aircraft. Indeed, it is a welcome development that conservative Saudi is adapting. This election and the effectuation of women’s franchise testify to it. Need it be said that the new global order is one which is privileging women professionals.