(Beirut) – Saudi women will vote and run in municipal council elections for the first time on December 12, 2015. Women’s participation in elections for municipal councils is a positive step toward greater political participation, but Saudi Arabia continues to discriminate against women through myriad laws, policies, and practices.
Saudi women’s participation in the municipal elections is the latest move toward greater roles for women in Saudi public life. In 2005, authorities allowed women’s election to local chambers of commerce. In 2013, King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, the highest advisory body to the king.
“Voting and running for the municipal council elections is a landmark achievement for Saudi women,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “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.”
Saudi voters will cast ballots on December 12, 2015, for 284 municipal councils, electing two-thirds of the total of 3,159 members. Municipal councils have limited responsibilities, which include overseeing urban development projects and suggesting planning regulations.
In spite of the challenges, Saudi women said they welcomed the elections. One woman said that simply seeing women put forward their ideas during the campaign process was “a very positive thing.” Another told Human Rights Watch, “I said I should give up, but I am not giving up. I am going to get registered and I did … I said this is our right. It is the first time they let us do something [like this] and we are not letting go. It is a door open, ajar, and we just have to push it wide open.”
Saudi authorities promised women the right to vote following the first municipal council elections in 2005. The authorities postponed the second round of elections from 2009 to 2011, claiming there were technical difficulties with ensuring that women could participate. But in early 2011, the government announced they would again exclude women from the vote.
In September 2011, the late King Abdullah declared by royal decree that women would be allowed to vote and run as candidates in the third municipal council elections. King Salman, who succeeded King Abdullah in January 2015, stuck to the decree, but the number of women registered to vote and certified to campaign in the elections has been small.
Women make up less than 10 percent of the voting pool, with 130,637 women registered, compared with 1,355,840 men.
Local activists told Human Rights Watch that women faced a number of barriers in registering to vote. Election officials set up single-sex voter registration centers, but only one-third were for women, according to Arab News, a local news outlet. Two women Human Rights Watch interviewed said that many of the centers for women were far from where they lived and hard to find and reach. Saudi Arabia bans women from driving.
Saudi women also faced problems proving identity and residency. While registration regulations applied equally to men and women, women faced greater difficulties in obtaining the necessary documents. Though authorities now permit women to get their own ID cards, many women still do not have them. Women also found it difficult to provide proof of residence, as women do not usually own property or pay the utility bills. Instead, a male guardian often holds the property in his name and pays bills. In such cases, women had to prove their relationship with the property owner, such as through a family ID, but the male guardian usually holds that. As one woman put it, “If the man doesn’t want her to participate, he … can deny giving her all those documents.”
Many single, divorced, or elderly women face difficulties renting property in their own name and live in property owned by a male relative, but not necessarily one on whose family ID they are included. Authorities required these women to provide extra documents to prove residency, such as a certified document from a district chief. Three women told Human Rights Watch that registration centers differed in what proof of residency they accepted. One woman said she spent two weeks visiting various government offices trying to procure the necessary paperwork for herself and her daughters.
The final list of 6,917 candidates, released on November 29, included 979 women. Earlier news reports said that close to 1,071 women tried to register as candidates, but that a number dropped out because of the high cost of media campaigns, low levels of awareness about the importance of the elections, and the absence of women’s support programs. The Baladi Initiative, a project led by Saudi women that presses for a greater role in society, had campaigned for the right to vote since 2010. But the authorities shut down its election workshops in August over licensing issues.
Election officials imposed strict sex-segregation rules on both men and women during campaigning. Authorities prohibited candidates from addressing members of the opposite sex other than through a designated spokesperson and required campaign offices to be sex-segregated. These regulations detrimentally affected female candidates, as the vast majority of Saudi registered voters are men.
On November 29, 2015, authorities disqualified at least four female activists who are vocal on issues including women’s rights. One posted the election committee’s response to her objection, which did not provide a reason for her exclusion. The candidate later posted on Twitter that she had been reinstated after a further appeal.
Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact despite government pledges to abolish it. Under this system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, traveling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or son. Authorities also fail to prevent some employers from requiring male guardians to approve the hiring of adult female relatives or some hospitals requiring male guardian approval before undertaking certain medical procedures for women.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which Saudi Arabia is a party, provides that states must take measures for women to exercise their right to political and public life on equal terms with men, including the right to vote in all elections and to be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies.
Saudi authorities should end all discriminatory restrictions on women’s exercise of their right to political participation and end all discrimination against women in law and in practice, including abolishing the male guardianship system and sex segregation policies, Human Rights Watch said.
“Saudi women have faced significant obstacles in their fight for their right to vote and run in the municipal council elections, but their participation on December 12 will send a strong signal to Saudi society that women are continuing the long march toward greater participation in public life,” Whitson said.