Activists for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia decried the regime’s decision March 28 to keep a voting ban in place at a time when Arab governments are taking steps to avert pro-democracy uprisings. The announcement came from the head of the electoral committee charged with preparing for next month’s municipal polls. “We are not ready for the participation of women in these municipal elections,” said Abdulrahman al-Dahmash, while renewing pledges that authorities will allow women to take part “in the next ballot.” The Saudi monarchy announced last week that it is to hold municipal elections for only the second time, kicking off on April 23 from region to region. The March 28 announcement is “an outrageous mistake that the kingdom is committing. It’s just repeating the same mistake of 2005,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a history lecturer at King Saud University in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia held its first (male-only) municipal polls in 2005, electing half the members of 178 municipal councils. The government in May 2009 extended the mandate of the councils by two years, postponing a second vote to have taken place that year. Activist Wajiha al-Hwaidar told AFP: “I have grown used to the [attitude of] Saudi officials and women’s oppression. All their decisions are disappointing. I know these mentalities that despise women… These men who run society still live in the pre-globalization and pre-modernity times.” She insisted women in Saudi Arabia must have the courage to stand up for themselves. “Men are not going to voice women’s demands on their behalf. There should be a real women’s rights movement in the kingdom,” she said, noting that Western women had to struggle for equality.
While an online campaign dubbed “Baladi” or “My Country” has been launched to advocate for giving women the franchise, Hwaidar said that women had to act in the physical world and not just on the Internet. “Women have to take to the street, or organize sit-ins. Otherwise, they will remain like cattle, herded” by men, she said. Fassi said women activists would form their own “shadow councils” in response to the Saudi government’s exclusion of women, and monitor the performance of male-only councils. (AFP, Bloomberg, March 29)