(Beirut) - The Saudi government's refusal to let women vote in municipal elections in September 2011 unlawfully deprives women of their rights to full and equal status under the law, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the election committee to allow women to vote and to run for seats on the municipal councils.
On March 28, 2011, ‘Abd al-Rahman Dahmash, president of the general committee for the election of municipal council members, said, "We are not prepared for the participation of women in the municipal elections now." He promised that women will be allowed to participate in the future.
One woman told Human Rights Watch: "We wish for women to represent us in the Shura council, in ministries...what's the problem with that?...But, I am a minor in the eyes of my government."
In 2005, when Saudi Arabia held its first municipal elections, the kingdom's first and only elections for political office, the government justified the exclusion of women by saying that election workers could not verify women's identity since many did not have an identity card. The government also barred women from running as candidates. The Interior Ministry started issuing identity cards to women ages 22 and over in 2000, with the intention of easing daily activities and averting fraud and forgery.
"The government of Saudi Arabia cannot expect Saudi women to believe that a lack of preparation is behind the denial of their rights to political participation," said Nadya Khalife, Middle East women's rights researcher for Human Rights Watch. "This was a preposterous excuse in 2005, and even more so now. This crude sex discrimination is an insult to millions of Saudi women."
Another female activist told Human Rights Watch: "They had six years to make the necessary preparations, but there is no will to allow women to participate. The decision crushed all our hopes. Some Saudi women have all the qualifications necessary and want to become part of the political process in their country."
The Saudi election committee also announced on March 28 that voter and candidate registration will take place between late April and early June. Voters in the September 22 election will choose members of 219 municipal councils across the nation.
The government has undertaken a number of reforms to Saudi Arabia's election system since 2005, but none have addressed women's participation. Instead, the government has focused on such issues as the number of districts, qualifications for candidates, penalties for election fraud, and the role and membership of municipal councils.
In the rest of the Gulf region, and indeed most countries in the rest of the world, women have the right to vote and run for office, Human Rights Watch said. Women in Bahrain won the right to vote and run for elections in 2002. In 2010, Fatima Salman became the first woman in Bahrain to win a seat on a municipal council. Women in Kuwait voted for the first time in municipal elections in 2005; two women were appointed to municipal councils for the first time, and four women serve in Kuwait's parliament.
"It's appalling that while women in all other countries, including Saudi Arabia's neighboring countries, are able to participate in political life, Saudi women are left out," Khalife said.
Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2000. The kingdom entered two reservations, neither having any bearing on gender-based discrimination in political participation.
The CEDAW committee, the treaty monitoring body, noted in 2008 its concern about the exclusion of women from the first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia. The committee encouraged the Saudi government to "take sustained measures ... to accelerate the increase in the participation and representation of women in elected and appointed bodies in all areas and at all levels of public and political life." The committee also recommended that the Saudi government should offer training in leadership and negotiation skills for current and future women leaders and carry out activities to raise awareness about the importance of women's participation in their country's decision-making processes.
The Arab Charter for Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia acceded to, states in article 24(3) that, "Every citizen has the right to stand for election and choose his representative in free and fair elections under conditions guaranteeing equality between all citizens." Article 3 of the Charter provides that signatories to the Charter must ensure that all individuals have the right to enjoy all rights and freedoms recognized without distinction to sex.
Women are also sidelined from political participation at other levels in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz appoints members of the Shura Council, a body with some functions of a national parliament, but has appointed no women, although the Shura Council president in 2006 appointed six women as advisers. In 2009, King Abdullah appointed Nura al-Fayiz deputy minister of education, responsible for girls' education.
Saudi women of all ages live under a male guardianship system, preventing women to work, study, marry, or travel, without the permission of a male guardian - a father, husband, or brother.