(Amman) – King Abdullah’s announcement that women will be able to participate in municipal elections in 2015 and become members of the consultative Shura Council is a long overdue step toward greater participation of women in public life, Human Rights Watch said today. In his statement on September 25, 2011, Abdullah made no reference to reforming other areas of discrimination against women, such as the guardianship system that authorizes male control over women and the ban on women driving.
“King Abdullah’s promise that women will finally be allowed to vote is a welcome move away from the discrimination and exclusion that Saudi women have suffered for so long,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Sadly, King Abdullah’s promise of reform in 2015 doesn’t come soon enough for women to vote in upcoming municipal elections.”
Women remain excluded from participating in the municipal elections set to begin before the end of September. The kingdom held its first municipal elections in 2005, but the government barred women as voters and candidates. At the time, the government promised they would be able to participate in the second round of elections, scheduled for 2009, but postponed that vote until 2011, claiming there were “technical” difficulties with ensuring women could participate. Despite an additional two-year preparation period, the government in early 2011 announced that it would again exclude women from the 2011 municipal elections, the only elections for political offices in the kingdom.
The king’s latest announcement promised that women could vote in the next municipal elections, scheduled for 2015. Half of the municipal council’s seats are elected, and the other half are appointed by the government. The powers of the councils remain unclear and are not significant, though recent changes ensure that each municipal council can directly work with the local mayor and governor, and not only report to the minister of municipal and rural affairs in Riyadh.
The king also announced that women could become full voting members of the Shura Council, an appointed consultative body that has authority to review laws and question ministers but cannot propose or veto legislation and has no binding powers. In 2006 the Shura Council appointed six women as advisors, a number that has now risen to 12. These women advisers do not have a right to vote, however.
In April 2011 a group of Saudi women launched the Baladi campaign to protest their exclusion from the elections, and several women unsuccessfully attempted to register as voters. One woman launched a legal challenge, but the Board of Grievances, an administrative court, rejected the case because of procedural errors in the submission.
The conservative kingdom maintains a system of male guardianship under which women cannot make decisions about their life without approval from a father, husband, brother, or even son, including decisions regarding travel, work, health care, education, and business affairs. In June 2009 the government promised the United Nations Human Rights Council that it would abolish that system but has yet to do so.
Saudi women renewed a campaign to allow women to drive in May 2011, leading to the arrests of Manal al-Sharif, one female driver, and others who followed her example across the kingdom. Abdullah has not indicated when women would be allowed to drive.
“We hope King Abdullah’s announcement is the first step in giving Saudi women essential rights that other women all over the world take for granted,” Whitson said.