Bureaucracy, male guardianship impede women participation in historic Saudi municipal elections

Alia Soliman , Wednesday 9 Dec 2015

Saudi woman Fawzia al-Harbi, a candidate for local municipal council elections
Saudi woman Fawzia al-Harbi, a candidate for local municipal council elections, shows her candidate biography at a shopping mall in Riyadh November 29, 2015 (Reuters)

Saudi women will head to the polls on 12 December to vote in municipal elections, an unprecedented step forward for women in the kingdom after a 2011 royal decree granted them both the right to vote and run for public office.

Although analysts have agreed that this is a step forward, bureaucractic hurdles and the male guardianship system contributed to a low turnout among women voters.

Saudi women are now exploring uncharted territory and overcoming many challenges as the first-ever woman voters and candidates in the history of the kingdom.

The municipal elections were first introduced in 2005 by King Abdullah, who vowed in 2011 that women would participate in the 2015 polls, saying "we refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society.”

King Salman followed through by holding the third round of municipal elections that will witness the participation of women as candidates and voters.

Saudi women as first-time voters

The participation of women in Saudi elections is a step forward, yet still not enough, as some obstacles remain. 

Analysts have pointed out that in the context of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system a number of issues need to be addressed in order for this move to have a meaningful impact on women's lives.

Rothna Begum, women's rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch told Ahram Online that this is a welcome step and a positive signal.

“Saudi’s female voters will be equal to men, and as candidates they will for the very first time be part of the decision making process,” Begum said.

In January 2013, King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the previously all-male Shura Council, or the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia, in a move that appeared to expand women’s role in government. However, the Shura Council has a relatively limited role in decision-making, as any proposed laws or provisions are entirely up to the king’s discretion. 

Marwa Shalaby, programme director for Women and Human Rights in the Middle East at the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, said that promoting women's presence on the local level of governance is an effective step toward promoting women's political participation on the national level and in leadership positions.

“In the context of Saudi Arabia, while this development may lead to more female inclusion in the public sphere, I am still unable to see how this would improve women's status in the country,” Shalaby says.

Shalaby goes on to explain that despite the rising levels of woman education over the past decade, women across the country are still held back by the male guardianship system.

Under the male guardianship system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian — usually her husband, father, brother, or son.

Explaining more the voter registration process that took place in August, Begum says that one of the documents needed to register to vote is proof of residence, which requires a woman to have property or a house under her name, something that is not common in Saudi Arabia.

“This has contributed to the low female turnout at the polls,” Begum said.

In addition to proof of residence, anyone registering to vote needs to present a National ID and a family card.

According to the election’s official website, 130,600 women have registered to vote in the kingdom’s municipal elections, compared to over 1.35 million men.

“There are myriad of deep-rooted gender inequalities in the country that need to be addressed in order for this step to have a meaningful impact on women's lives,” Shalaby says. 

How can Saudi women secure the male vote? 

Approximately 1069 women candidates and 6428 male candidates are running in December's municipal elections, competing for seats in 284 councils that include 3159 members, 2106 (70%) of whom are elected to office rather than appointed by the king.

So far, three women candidates were disqualified from the final list of authorized candidates, announced on the 29th of November.

During a campaigning period that runs from November 29th until December 10th, both male and female candidates are expected to impress and appeal to voters.

These first-time female candidates will have to rally ten times harder than their male counterparts, not only to prove their qualifications, but also to overcome obstacles unique to female candidates, such as their inability to speak directly to male voters.

“Sexes are segregated in all town hall meetings as female candidates can only address female voters. The female candidates can address the male voters only by video feed or a male spokesperson,” Shalaby explains.

As part of the male guardianship system, “Saudi female candidates need to find a male intermediary to talk to the other gender on their behalf,” Begum explains.

“Since not so many women registered to vote, Saudi male candidates make the bigger percentage and finding a male intermediary who would talk to male voters on behalf of these women candidates, can be another obstacle,” Begum said.

Shalaby explained how Saudi women attempted to overcome these obstacles by launching extensive social media campaigns to mobilize voters.

Running with the slogan, “my win is your win,” candidate Fouzia Al-Harbi started campaigning on Twitter using her slogan as a hashtag (#فوزي_فوزكم), allowing female and male voters alike to voice their support of her.

A snapshot from the official twitter page Saudi canididate Fawzia al-Harbi showing support of voters.

Saudi’s women candidates, if elected, will be responsible for approving annual budgets, suggesting planning regulations, and overseeing urban and development projects, Al Jazeera reported.

“Many of the women candidates have the support of their families and are willing to overcome the challenges, because it will be worth it,” Begum said.

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