Alwaght- News that women are registering to vote in elections in Saudi Arabia has garnered plenty of attention. But before we celebrate a step toward equality in one of the world’s most notorious misogynist country, it is important to look a little closer at this supposed reform.
The fact is this that when you view this change in the wider context of Saudi Arabia’s extreme and expanding political repression, it is clear that it is an advance on paper only. Indeed, the right to vote in thoroughly closed political systems is essentially meaningless, what do you vote for in a system that effectively forbids meaningful political opposition of any kind?
Saudi Arabia has always been among the 10-worst in international body’s survey of political and civil rights. Citizens that even hint that political and human rights should be expanded have been tried for terrorism within a judiciary system that is closely aligned with the monarchy.
Meanwhile, elections have limited impact, to put it mildly. Political decision-making revolves around the King, who appoints his own cabinet and then ratifies the legislation that the body passes. Decision-making bodies like the Majlis al-Shura, whose 150 members are appointed by the king, act in a consultative capacity. Local municipal elections were introduced in 2005. Half of the seats on these councils are determined by vote and the rest by royal appointment.
Even the advent of the Internet and social media, considered as the greatest breakthrough in political participation in the country’s recent history, has had a limited impact on political scene, because Al Saud regime has done its best to restrict any kind of freedom of expression, including online.
Of course, women are at the sharp end of political repression in Saudi Arabia, where they still cannot drive a car (and can be tried in a court established to try terror-attempts cases). Without a male companion, women won’t be able to leave their homes to register for the elections; therefore women’s decision-making right lies in the hands of their husbands – or, in some cases, their sons or other male family members. Until this severely discriminatory system is dismantled, participation in political life will remain extremely challenging.
However, many experts have doubted the efficiency of women’s right for vote, saying it cannot bring any real change in a country where women’s activities are heavily restricted. The municipal councils have limited powers, and the Saudi national government remainswithout a single female minister.
Moreover, some see this action as an attempt to lighten the burden that is practiced by the international organizations that always concentrate on the women rights in the oil rich kingdom, and that all this is just a dramatic show that will not reach any happy ever after endings.
Bassma Al Seyofi, co-founder of Baladi Initiative that is a grassroots women’s political empowerment movement, suggests that a dearth of information for women on how to register and vote may be an obstacle.
“Many of these places are unknown and the addresses are confusing – people do not know what district they are in, let alone the school. There is a lack of awareness, and this has been a major obstacle,” she said.
One more problem is that female voters, no matter how old they are, have to be escorted by a male guardian.
In addition to above-mentioned points, on the one hand Wahhabi Mufties (high ranking clergymen) have issued fatwas (religious verdicts) and on the other hand regime-backed Wahhabi institutions have launched large campaigns in order to deprive women from their rights.
Indeed, while the Saudi regime claims that the inclusion of women in municipal elections is a step toward fulfillment of women’s rights, given the closed nature of Saudi regime; it is hard to be optimist about the future of such propagandistic measures.
By Al Waght