WEB DESK: “Voted! For first time in my adult life, you may find this laughable but hey, it’s a start”, tweeted Rem Mohammad Assad. She is one of the 106,000 women who cast her vote in the first-ever election open for females voters and candidates held over the weekend in Saudi Arabia for the municipal councils.
The turnout at women polling stations was no less than 80 percent in parts of the country, well in excess of the figures for men. Among 6,440 candidates for 284 council seats about 900 were women.
Out of them 20 have been elected, which is about 1 percent of the total. The Saudi women’s registration as voters was problematic and they were barred from face-to-face canvassing and their campaigning was restricted to social media. But what could not be denied to women in the kingdom was their unrelenting struggle for gender equality.
It was that great visionary monarch, King Abdullah, who opened the door on women, in 2011, after the first two elections to local councils were confined to men voters. And this was despite stiff resistance by the clergy – the country’s Grand Mufti had opposed the move by terming the king’s decision as “opening the door on evil”.
Of course, gender segregation is still the norm in the kingdom, but they are allowed to work in offices, visit markets and other public places. So it was enigmatic why they cannot take part in politics. That is no more the case, as gender equality has begun tiptoeing to the centre of the Saudi politics.
Of course it would take time, essentially because the platform to which women been elected and in such small numbers – unless King Salman orders induction of more women to one-third of the seats which are to be filled by nominations by the municipal affairs ministry – is virtually powerless. The elected municipal councils have no law-making powers nor do they have any in public role.
Yet, with women as their part the municipal councils are expected to be different from the ones twice before, both in scope and performance. Their electoral agendas of women candidates were more down to earth, and when implemented they would amply justify their claim to run the municipal affairs.
Among more popular electoral pledges they made included women health, daycare centres for working mothers, youth community centres with sports and cultural activities, better garbage collection and overall greener cities.
And this sat well with ordinary Saudis, particularly at places with limited access to government-funded utilities and services. For instance, voters in Madrika district, some 70 kilometres from Makkah, elected Salma bint Hazab al-Obaiti (the first announcement of a woman winner), because quite a few births had taken place in cars on way to the city, which she promised if elected would no more be the case. All other candidates were men. It is not big cities where women got elected, they were elected from all over the country, indicating realisation on the part of the Kingdom’s rulers that women could no more be denied their share in electoral process.
Female candidates expressed pride in contesting elections even when they were not sure of winning. They said ‘they were happy at finally being able to do something they had only seen on television or in movies’.
That given ‘lack of democracy and continued social conservation’ the women suffrage in Saudi Arabia would remain under tight leash there are not many buyers of this prognosis.
The reality is that not very far from Saudi Arabia there are monarchies but women in there sit in parliaments and hold high government offices. Yes, there is widespread social conservation in the Kingdom – women are not allowed to drive cars – but that is changing, women being both voters and candidates on all open seats of more than two hundred seats of municipal councils being the evidence.