Votes continue to be counted in Saudi Arabia’s municipal elections, in which women were allowed for the first time to cast ballots. According to official figures, 130,000 women registered to vote in Saturday’s poll, compared with 1.35 million men.
Back in 2011, the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud announced that Saudi women would be allowed to participate in the municipal elections for the first time. Observers said the move, which came with a set of political decisions, was a temporary response to the regional’s political unrest, rather than real reform.
Indeed, women’s participation was not allowed in the 2011 elections, amid claims of logistical difficulties. The grassroots “Baladi” campaign by women’s rights activists to empower women for political participation had been active since 2010.
The campaign, however, was ordered shut shortly before the start of the 2015 elections.
Nevertheless, this latest round of municipal elections in Saudi Arabia is promising, and not only because of women’s participation.
New municipal regulations have granted members of local councils wider authorities in reviewing and deciding on issues concerning public health, land allocations, permits and planning. Moreover, citizens as young as 18 can now participate in voting, widening public engagement.
As for many other rights denied to women: The right is first acknowledged, then advocated, until it is finally practiced and optimised.
However, procedural complications in the electoral process have hindered effective participation by women.
It was expected that the elections planning committee, with female members on board, would consider certain affirmative measures to ensure women’s accommodation in the process.
On the contrary, the process was loaded with roadblocks that severely limited their participation. Women were asked for their national identity cards, when a good proportion of Saudi women utilise only family cards of their guardians as a means of identification.
Proof of residence was another problem, in a country where the majority of women customarily live with their families. They were required to obtain a validation of residence from an authorised district clerk, requiring a copy of a family card and residence documents.
Unfortunately, district clerks were not always on duty or adequately informed to facilitate the process, so many women were excluded from participating in the elections.
And for women who were actually blessed with a national identification card but not with a guardian who agreed or was available to lend them a copy of his papers to prove residence, exclusion was guaranteed.
Time restrictions were also a key concern, with just one day allocated for the public to cast their votes. In a country where women do not drive and have to plan their commutes meticulously in advance, this strategy was seriously short-sighted.
In addition, the final list of qualified candidates was released on the first day of the two-week campaigning period, leaving no room for disqualified candidates to process their appeals and resume campaigning if accepted.
The main hurdle faced by some of the female candidates, though, was their unjustified rejection based on an anonymous review by a “specialised entity”, also known as the Saudi Ministry of Interior. Just 979 female candidates, compared with 5,938 male candidates, managed to reach the final list, and the ability of female candidates to promote their platforms was limited.
In a surprising announcement after the list of female candidates was released, the national election committee demanded certain requirements from female candidates before they could promote their programmes, including gender-segregated campaign sites, no displaying of personal pictures, and assigning men as representatives for female candidates to interact with male voters during the promotional period.
Such measures aimed to appease an influential religious group that views women’s public roles and engagement as unnecessary.
The mufti of Saudi Arabia, the highest religious figure in the country, issued a televised edict against women’s participation, which was reciprocated by several religious hardliners. Traditional social resistance followed, including an incident in which two masked men tore apart a banner containing the name of a female candidate from their tribe.
Despite these restrictions, many female candidates posted their electoral platforms online with personal photographs.
All of which begs the question: Do such limitations reflect a lack of real political will, or just the limitations of social and bureaucratic traditions? Critics of the municipal elections have cited the lack of transparency and the limited authorities of the councils as signs of a lack of real political interest in power-sharing.
The unchallenged authority of the Ministry of Interior to manipulate the course of the electoral process is indicative of a controlled political sphere. Indeed, some women disqualified from candidacy are well-known writers and activists.
In the 2011 elections, an activist blogger was similarly disqualified as a candidate, with no reasons given.
Amid this backdrop, women who participated in the electoral process were accused of serving to promote false political progress. However, boycotting the elections due to an absence of more meaningful reform would ensure that dominant groups remain in that role. The value of women’s participation in any form outweighs that of boycotting.
As for many other rights denied to women: The right is first acknowledged, then advocated, until it is finally practiced and optimised. In the end, building awareness through engagement, rather than through segregation and isolation, is a far more effective policy.
Hala Aldosari is an activist and a researcher on women’s health.