Activists say the laws restricting women in the kingdom are not based in religious teachings.
Safinaz Abu al-Shamat and Jamal al-Saadi made history last Sunday by becoming the first Saudi women to register to vote.
For the first time in the kingdom’s history, women will be able to vote, register as candidates and run for office in the municipal elections to be held on December 12. These will be the first polls since the 2011 decision by late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to grant women the right to vote and run for office.
Voter registration begins on August 22, but started a week earlier in Mecca and Medina, which Shamat and Saadi call home, respectively. Candidates will be able to register beginning on August 30.
The municipal council’s limited responsibilities include approving annual budgets, suggesting planning regulations, and overseeing urban and development projects.
An estimated 70 women are planning to register as candidates, and an additional 80 as campaign managers, according to local media. Neither male nor female candidates will be allowed to use pictures of themselves in campaign advertising, and on election day, there will be separate polling centres for men and women.
Women’s rights activists had long fought for the right to vote in the oil-rich Gulf kingdom, whose legal code applies a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam that bans females from driving and travelling without the consent of a male guardian.
Female participation in December’s elections “is an important step towards creating greater inclusion within society”, said Nouf al-Sadiq, a Saudi citizen and graduate student in Middle East studies at George Washington University. “It is also a vital step towards moderation, and for reaching a better understanding of our own society.”
Muna Abusulayman, an influential Saudi who has worked in media, education and philanthropy entrepreneurship, was also optimistic, predicting that if women are elected to office, they “will bring a female point of view, demanding certain amendments to laws that are unfavourable towards women”.
Fawzia Abu Khalid, a political sociologist at King Saud University, sees the decision to allow female political participation as reflecting a broader change in view in Saudi Arabia regarding women’s rights.
“I think there is the realisation from different groups, including the conservative groups, that what happened in the past, where their voice was the only representative in society, would no longer continue,” she said.
Women's rights will remain elusive at best, as long as discrimination against them is institutionalised and severely re-enforced by the state's agencies.
Although the upcoming elections will be the first in which women will vote and run for local office, Saudi women have enjoyed some political representation through the country’s Shura Council. The consultative council does not have lawmaking powers and can only make recommendations to the king. In January 2013, King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the body.
“The Shura women have added the women’s voices and representation to a high-level governmental council and opened the floor to discuss issues of concern to women – even if the political will didn’t choose to implement their recommendations and suggestions until now,” Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi writer and women’s rights activist, told Al Jazeera.
At the same time, critics say that women’s ability to vote and run for office will not matter unless the country’s political institutions are overhauled.
“Women’s rights will remain elusive at best, as long as discrimination against them is institutionalised and severely re-enforced by the state’s agencies,” argued Ali al-Yami, director of the Washington DC-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia.
Rothna Begum, a Middle East women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that women’s roles in Saudi politics would still be limited.
“If [the election] does take place, Saudi Arabian women will, for the first time, have gained suffrage. However, municipal councils and the Shura Council have limited powers, and currently there is no female minister in government,” Begum said.
Norah al-Faiz, who as deputy education minister, was Saudi Arabia’s first female in a cabinet-level position, was replaced in a major cabinet reshuffle by King Salman earlier this year.
Some women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia say other issues are just as important as political participation, such as the ban on female drivers and the guardianship system, in which male relatives have legal control over many aspects of their female counterparts’ lives. Under the system, women are required to obtain their male guardian’s permission if they want to complete their university education, work, travel abroad, file a lawsuit in a court, and sometimes even to receive medical treatment.
After widespread condemnation in recent years, Saudi Arabia’s government has shown signs of considering reforms to the guardianship system, accepting a recommendation made by the UN Human Rights Council to take steps to phase out the system.
Sadiq told Al Jazeera that the Baladi (My Country) campaign, which is run by Saudi women, including Fozia Alhani and Hatoon al-Fassi, was “the main motor behind King Abdullah’s decision to allow women to vote and run in municipal elections”.
To help women interested in running for election, the Baladi campaign had planned to organise training sessions to educate participants on methods of campaigning for office and help them create their own platforms and agendas. Fassi, the general coordinator of the initiative, told local newspapers in March that the first phase of the project would bring trainers from other countries in the Arab world, as well as from the United Nations.
However, earlier this month, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs put a stop to Baladi’s plan to hold training workshops. “Baladi has had a plan to hold several workshops to educate the people about the culture of elections. However, the ministry has stopped us from holding these workshops as they wanted the election programme to be more unified and centralised,” Fassi said, according to Saudi Gazette.
Although some Saudi activists believe that first-time female voters may be unduly influenced by their husband’s or brothers’ voting preferences, Sadiq strongly disagrees.
“As evidenced by the 250 female members of the Baladi campaign, women have expressed their commitment to elect the best person for the job,” she said, “whether it is a woman or a man.”