Saudi Women Participate in Elections for First Time

saudi electionsPhoto Credit: AFP

Of the nearly 1,000 Saudi women who ran in local elections, approximately 20 won municipal council seats out of a total of 2,100 available council posts. While 44 percent of the 1.35 million registered Saudi men voted, an estimated 81 percent of the 130,000 women turned out to vote, according to government estimates. The State Department called the elections an “important step forward… toward a more inclusive electoral process that will ensure all citizens are represented in a government accountable to all Saudi citizens.” Opinion diverged on the motives for the opening of elections to women, with speculation that the decision represented “window dressing” aimed at appeasing Saudi Arabia’s western allies. Many eligible voters expressed dismay at the obstacles female candidates faced during the campaign, including the lack of publicity and laws against gender mixing. Female voters also confronted institutional barriers to registration such as difficulty in providing proof of residency and a shortage of female voter-registration centers. Human Rights Watch Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson argued that “the government should fix the problems that are making it hard for women to participate and build on this progress to create momentum for further women’s rights reforms.”

Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain interviewed several Saudi women about the elections. One voter viewed the elections “like a play—just for show, an award for women, ‘look, we gave them their rights,'” but advocated for participation nonetheless. “It is still our right. We need to hold it with our teeth and say, “Yes, this is our right.” Another boycotted the elections, arguing that “the government is using them to prove that they give women their rights. But it’s not true…when anybody asks me [about small improvements to women’s status], I say, ‘I’m now in a position that I’m a slave. I’m a slave, and you didn’t give me my freedom, you just gave me golden shoes.'” Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, noted substantial voter apathy in the elections, as “Saudis know real power remains in the hands of the royal family and the clerical establishment.” Asserting that the United States should nonetheless capitalize on the elections to urge more reform within the kingdom, Riedel evoked President Kennedy’s argument to King Faisal in 1962 that Saudi security depended on civil liberties.

The late King Abdullah promised women’s suffrage in 2011 and two years later appointed 30 women to the Shura Council. His successor King Salman moved forward with the elections, which encompasses 284 local councils handling local matters such as infrastructure and health care. Campaigning on a platform of legal reform and women’s issues, Lama al-Sulaiman and Hanuf al-Hazmi won the municipal elections in Jeddah and al-Jawf respectively. Arrested in 2014 for violating Saudi Arabia’s law against women driving, activist Loujain Hathloul was allowed last week to enter the race after an official ban and a subsequent online campaign in support of her candidacy. “After I was banned, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t ignored,” Hathloul said. “This means, of course, making some noise.”