On 12 December, women in Saudi Arabia will enter polling booths throughout the Kingdom for the first time to cast their ballots in the municipal elections. This will make good on the promise King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud made to Saudi women at the culmination of the most recent election in 2011, when he declared, “we refuse to marginalize women’s role in Saudi society.” 132,000 women have now registered to vote, 1,000 will be running as candidates, and many more have taken on roles in the political campaigning process. Women’s suffrage in the Kingdom comes with a slew of additional electoral reforms: the voting age has been dropped from 21 to 18, and the percentage of elected (as opposed to royally appointed) council members will rise from 50 percent to 75 percent.
Government officials and activists have welcomed this development as a progressive victory. But will electoral franchise pave the way for Saudi women’s involvement in public life within the Kingdom? This notion seems hopelessly optimistic. Women will make up a mere six percent of voters in an electorate of 1.7 million people. This is largely a result of the complicated and time-consuming registration process, which was incredibly difficult for Saudi women to navigate. Registration requires women to present national identification cards and proof of residency, a fairly difficult task in a country where very few women can attain property under their own name. A feminist activist in Jeddah described being denied such documentation by her phone company, mayor’s office, and Chamber of Commerce, eventually managing to get a bureaucrat to do her a favor.
The male guardianship systems additionally ensure that voting without the explicit permission of a relative is essentially impossible. While it is technically permissible to register without the approval of a male guardian, most Saudi women need a man to drive them to the polling booth. The logistical issues posed by the short registration period, which took place during the peak travel season between August and September, posed an additional barrier. Activist Muna AbuSulyman will not be voting because she was out of the country. She joins more than four million other Saudi women who did not have the time, resources, or inclination to navigate the registration process.
While a surprising number of female candidates registered to run, these women face many debilitating challenges. Under the strict gender segregation of the Kingdom, these women cannot hold campaign events with men in the vicinity or address them directly in any capacity. This obstacle makes it essentially impossible to reach the male voters who encompass 94% of the electorate. Both men and women are forbidden from publishing campaign material with their image on it. However, this disproportionately affects the female candidates who generally have fewer opportunities for social networking, and less face recognition, than their established male counterparts. Few contenders are optimistic about their chances of a victory. In fact, most of the women running are simply taking advantage of a rare platform to make a symbolic gesture about human rights. Activist Loujain al-Hathoul, standing for a seat in Riaydh District 5, has simply stated that she is “not excited” by the unrealistic prospect of winning a seat, but still hopes her campaign can provide some inspiration.
Regardless of the symbolic significance of suffrage, the everyday reality for Saudi women remains consistent. The country holds the 130th place in the World Economic Forums’ gender equality index, outranking only twelve other nations. Written permission from a male relative is still required to leave the country, work outside the home, and in certain conservative hospitals, to undergo medical procedures. The religious police zealously prosecute women who violate the strict dress code, sex outside of marriage remains illegal, and a women’s testimony in court is seen as only half as valid as that of a man. The Passport Department offered a new service to male guardians in 2014: automatic text updates when their charge crossed the Saudi border. After an uproar over this policy’s infantilizing effects on women, the service was made optional. This development was subsequently hailed as a feminist victory, and the Arab News proclaimed the Saudi women were “over the moon.”
These elections come at a period of increased oppression and human rights violations within the Kingdom. While the late King Abdullah once fostered hope for reform, the work of his successor, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, has essentially extinguished this optimism. Since 2011, peaceful dissent has been prosecuted harshly under cybercrime laws, which established lengthy jail sentences for crimes like ‘breaking allegiance with the ruler’ or ‘setting up an unlicensed organization.’ Human rights lawyers and liberal activists have additionally been subjected to physical punishment in the form of public floggings. Despite Abdullah’s promise of comprehensive judicial reform, Salman has yet to establish a formal penal code, allowing judges to distribute sentences at their discretion. However, the most worrying development of Salman’s tenure has been the surge of executions his regime has presided over. At least 151 people have been sentenced to death this year, the highest recorded statistic in 20 years. Around half of these executions were enacted for non-lethal offenses, including drug related crimes.
These developments have led critics to ask a pertinent question: what difference does suffrage make in an autocratic state? In a country that routinely squashes any form of peaceful opposition, it seems nonsensical to regard universal voting expansions as indicative of human rights progress. As Vanessa Tucker of Freedom House has noted, ‘the right to vote in a thoroughly closed political system is essentially meaningless-what do you vote for in a system that effectively forbids meaningful political opposition of any kind?’ The municipal governance in Saudi Arabia is tasked with little more than local administrative affairs and logistical concerns. Beyond the mundane bureaucracy of approving annual budgets and overseeing development projects, these institutions remain essentially powerless to affect political change. This reality inevitably factored into women’s incredibly low registration rates. Ultimately, few found it worthwhile to go through the lengthy and taxing registration process for an essentially symbolic gesture. If Saudi women are largely apathetic about suffrage, why are we celebrating?