Saudi Arabia Lets Women Vote — Finally

Photo: Ali Al Mubarak/Getty Images.
Two women go for a walk in Saudi Arabia. The country's female population is eligible to vote for the first time this Saturday.
People across Saudi Arabia will head to the polls on Saturday in what are being billed as historic elections.

For the first time, women in the Persian Gulf nation will be permitted to vote. Hundreds of women will also appear on the ballot themselves as candidates for the open local posts, the result of an order made by the country's late king in 2011. But, as NPR's Rachel Martin explains, "the significance of these elections is debatable."

"We spoke with several college-educated working women in their 20s who did not even know the election was happening," Martin, the host of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, told Refinery29. "Women who were older, in their 30s and 40s, have a better sense of the vote and see some power in the symbolism. But there are many who say this vote won't make a difference in their lives."

And, ultimately, "the king makes all major decisions" in the nation, Martin said. The slots up for grabs are on municipal councils, which she said "are essentially city-council jobs that deal with things like garbage collection and making sure there are sidewalks for people to walk on.

"The people on these councils can't allow women to drive or change the fact that a woman has to have a man's permission to do a lot of daily activities in Saudi Arabia," she said. "That's why many women don't see this as a major milestone."

The week of the election, more than 30 women were disqualified for the election, and it's unclear why.

Rachel Martin, NPR host
Martin and colleague Deborah Amos, an NPR international correspondent in the Middle East, have been covering the elections leading up to Saturday's vote. Martin has spent the past several days on the ground in Saudi Arabia. Her reports will air on Weekend Edition.

The two journalists took some time out of their busy days to help Refinery29 break down what these elections really mean for women in one of the strictest countries in the world.

How have women reacted to the changes, and how has Saudi society reacted as a whole?
Rachel Martin: "There is excitement in some corners but deep apathy as well. They just don't see how it will fundamentally change their lives — although it should be pointed out that Saudi men seem to be largely supportive. Any pushback comes from the religious conservatives, but once King Abdullah made this decree allowing women to vote, those critics got in line."

In addition to voting, more than 900 women are running for office. How do you think this will change political dynamics in Saudi Arabia?
Rachel Martin: "It's unclear. There are no real political dynamics in Saudi Arabia. A certain number of these municipal posts will be appointed, so after the election, if not many women have openly won seats through a direct vote, it will be interesting to see how many of them get appointed to the positions. That would be a real sign from the monarchy that they are pushing for a stronger role for women in public life. "

Candidates here can't give out any promotional material that shows their face but that doesn't mean there's not campaign...

Posted by Rachel Martin on Friday, December 11, 2015
What is the actual process women must go through to vote and run for office? Are some women excluded?
Rachel Martin: "Women had to go to a voting registration center and fill out a bunch of paperwork. The week of the election, more than 30 women were disqualified for the election, and it's unclear why. Some were known women's-rights activists, and it's not a stretch to think they were pushed out because of their activism."

Are there projections or indications about how many women, or what share of the population, will actually cast a ballot this Saturday?
Deborah Amos: "The registration for voting was dismally low for men and women. Around 130,000 women registered to vote and about 1.2 million men signed up. The voting age in Saudi Arabia was recently lowered to 18, but the registration remained low. Saudi is a 'young country' where more than 60% of the population is under 30. Voting is not on the radar for this election. Activists say it's a learning curve and hope for more participation next time. But change in the country comes from the top down."

The registration for voting was dismally low for men and women.

Deborah Amos, NPR
We’ve read that candidates need to address voters of the opposite gender via video in order to avoid direct contact and that candidates can’t feature their own face on their posters. What are some other ways in which the style and substance of these campaigns in Saudi Arabia differ from what our readers experience and see in the U.S.?
Rachel Martin: "There are no visible signs of an election here at all. No yard signs. No billboards. Because of the campaign restrictions, the only way candidates can reach out to voters is in small private settings or online through social media. Mainly the female candidates are trying to gin up support through their own personal networks. I spoke with a woman candidate last night, a pediatrician who told me she has tens of thousands of patients and she's hoping all of them go out and vote for her. Although she added that she doesn't really think she's going to win and, for her, just being able to run is an important first step."

There are lots of things women still can’t do in Saudi Arabia. What are some of the other rights that activists there are continuing to seek?
Rachel Martin: "This past week, a big change happened: Divorced women can now register their children for school or take them to the doctor and generally manage their lives. That hadn't been the case before. That's a huge victory for women's-rights advocates here. It looks as if the government is also rolling back some of the restrictions on women's ability to travel outside the country without a male relative's permission. That would also be a significant change. The gender-segregation rules are still burdensome, and the guardianship rules…still make it impossible for a woman to make a lot of choices on her own. And, yes, not being able to drive is still a big deal."

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