For the First Time in History, Women in Saudi Arabia Are Running for Office and Voting
Saturday will be a day of many firsts for the ultraconservative Saudi kingdom. It's when Saudi women will go to the polls and — in some cases — have the option to vote for other women in municipal council elections.
It will mark the first time in history women in Saudi Arabia can register to vote and run as candidates, even if that freedom is restricted to local elections.
Noticeable anticipation began in late August, when women began registering both as voters and candidate. The kingdom had been shifting toward policy change since 2011, when then-King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud suggested women's suffrage could be down the line.
However, some remain wary of the development, arguing that symbolic victories have the danger of distracting people from the real issues on the ground. "Saudi Arabia has done a great PR job in selling these elections as part of much-touted reforms," Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, told the Washington Post. "The reality is that not much changes."
Others, like Haifa Alhababi, an architecture professor running for a municipal seat in Riyadh, say even if progress is sluggish, it's a move in the right direction. But, she said, many of her female students are skeptical.
"I tell them this," Alhababi told the Washington Post. "This is a young country. It may seem developed because of the oil money. But it's really just finding its way. This election is another step — even if a baby step — for women. Don't discount it."
Alhababi is one of a number of women academics who count women's suffrage in Saudi Arabia as a landmark victory.
"We've been campaigning tirelessly to claim our rights," Hatoon al-Fassi, a professor of women's history and a women's rights activist, told the Guardian in August. "At the moment, we're recalibrating by taking our first steps into the world of elections, voting and running for the council that we've been demanding since 2004."
For now, women make up only around 14% of the 7,000 candidates seeking a seat and less than 10% of registered voters, according to the Washington Post. Furthermore, purdah — or gender segregation — is still enforced during political campaigning, making it difficult for female candidates to reach the vast majority of the electorate and for female voters to access information on the candidates.
"We are not accepting anything less than being acknowledged, or granted our full legal capacities and rights," said Fawzia Abu Khalid, a professor of political sociology.
"The obstacles that women are facing are a reflection of women's place in society. We don't have an independent body of representation, we're not seen as autonomous, we are always seen next to a man."
Saudi Arabia still requires male permission for women to work or, in some cases, even get surgery. "No matter whether you're divorced from him, or he disappears, or dies, your legal status is warped. A woman is only identified through her main guardian after she's married: her husband."
Still, Khalid said she is hopeful.
"I think there is the realization from different groups, including the conservative groups, that what happened in the past, where their voice was the only one represented in society, would no longer continue," she said.