JEDDAH - Sara Abbar knew what would happen when she and her 28-year-old daughter tried to register to vote in Saudi Arabia's municipal elections.
The vote, set for September, ruled out in advance any participation by the country's 9 million women.
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"We will keep trying again and again until we get our right," she said after meeting a resolute "no" from the election official she encountered at a voter registration center in Jeddah when registration began on April 23.
"The demand for our rights should never be postponed so we will continue calling for them."
The municipal council elections, only the second such experiment in more
than 40 years, highlight the contradictions that arise when an absolute
monarchy rooted in austere religious authority dabbles in democracy.
The kingdom allows no political parties or an elected parliament.
Religious police patrol the streets to enforce segregation of the sexes
and ensure women are modestly dressed.
Its government announced in March it would hold polls for half the seats
in municipal councils, but ruled out female candidates or voters. Local
officials cited logistical difficulties arranging sex-segregated
The decision sparked a campaign which Abbar and her daughter have joined called Baladi
, Arabic for My Country
organized by women activists on Facebook and Twitter, to show up at
polling stations around the kingdom and demand their right to vote.
Slogans aimed at encouraging men to register were plastered on buildings
designated for voter registration. "Be a part of the decision making
process," read one.
But in many parts of the kingdom, it was the women who responded to
those calls. From the Western province in Mecca, Jeddah and Medina, to
the Eastern province and even the capital of Riyadh, dozens of women
headed to voter registration centers on April 23 to demand
"Through this pressure we are attempting to change the decision, saying
that the reason given is not convincing," said Nailah Attar, one of the
campaign organizers. "We will continue trying until they stop us."
Organizers intend to force the issue of their participation through the end of registration on July 28.
"We expect that (female participation) can happen this year, and until
the last minute we will keep thinking that and we have high hopes for it
to happen," said Norah Alsowayan, who is based in Riyadh.
For her, the attempt to vote could chip away at Saudi Arabia's
"guardianship" system, which requires women to show written permission
from a father, husband or brother in order to travel, work or undergo
"Women here are looked at as minors and it is crucial for them to be
recognized as competent individuals. If that happens there will be
positive steps to follow and the society's outlook on women will
change," Alsowayan said.
Activists dismiss the claim of logistical barriers to women voters,
noting that 2005 elections for the other half of council seats also
excluded women, and that an election scheduled for 2009 was delayed on
grounds of other logistics.
"If we don't seek our right, no one else will seek it for us," said one
would-be voter, Yasmine Attar, outside a Jeddah voting registration
"All the steps that have been taken for women's rights were fought for, it wasn't given to them."