Saudi suffragettes: Saudi Arabian women seek the vote

Campaign among women in Saudi Arabia, organized on Facebook and Twitter, urges activists to visit polls and demand the right to vote.

By REUTERS
April 26, 2011 12:44
3 minute read.
Saudi Women smoke water pipes.

saudi women_311. (photo credit: (Illustrative photo: MCT))

 
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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.

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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 polling stations.

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 participation.

"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 certain surgeries.

"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 center.

"All the steps that have been taken for women's rights were fought for, it wasn't given to them."

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