Matthias Catón

On 12 December 2015, the world witnessed Saudi Arabia fulfilling the promise of its late king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. For the first time ever, Saudi women were granted the right to vote and even run as candidates in the country’s only recently implemented municipal elections.

Whether or not this most recent election actually represents progress for human rights in the country has been heavily debated; however, most tend to agree that though a mere drop in the ocean, the fact that some women were allowed these new rights does represent a small step forward.

What this election has done, however, is provide a recent and tangible base from which to discuss the situation of human rights in Saudi Arabia, primarily regarding women, but also for the entirety of the country.

The addition of both women voters and candidates was announced in 2011 [1]by
King Abdullah, and was perceived by some as a response to political unrest or an attempt to appease Western governments, so that Saudi Arabia can continue to have—for the most part—good business relations with other countries.

Matthias Catón
Image courtesy of Matthias Catón, © 2012, some rights reserved.

In order to participate in these elections, Saudi women had to undergo several laborious procedural complications, including, but not limited to acquiring specific personal documents and time constraints. This ultimately led to a mere 130,000 women successfully registering to vote.[2] Meanwhile, 1.35 million men registered to participate.[3] These figures only account for a 47 per cent[4] turnout of the population to participate in this third set of municipal elections. Most of the extensive registration measures have to do with Saudi Arabia’s intensive laws. For example, Saudi Arabia implements a guardianship system based upon a strictly conservative interpretation of Sharia Law. Saudi law is considered harsher than other countries that base their laws on Sharia due to being influenced by Wahhabism, an ultraconservative branch within Sunni Islam.[5] This means that every Saudi woman is required to have a male guardian – either a relative or a husband— known as a ‘mahram’ who is responsible for making social and economic decisions for her. These decisions can include her right to a passport, her right to marry, working approval, studying approval, or even signing off on some forms of surgery in addition to numerous others.[6] [7] Several articles were even published in November 2012 detailing how male guardians had begun to be alerted via text message when females under their guardianship crossed the Saudi border.[8]

This guardianship system hindered many women’s ability to register to vote, and presumably made this nigh impossible for those whose guardians did not approve of the new suffrage. First and foremost, to be able to vote in December, Saudi women were required to attend specific, gender designated registration centres in August, of which, only one third had facilities for women. This is important to note because the unnecessary intermingling of sexes is also forbidden.[9] This is reflected throughout society in numerous ways. For example, restaurants, including American chains such as McDonalds, are often segregated into family and male only sections[10] and a few institutions such as certain shopping malls and travel agencies are declared women only.[11]

While there is not a specific law against allowing women to drive, they are still prevented from doing so by not being able to obtain licenses from the government.[12] Women are also not permitted to go out in public without their chaperones, so to even take public transport they must be accompanied.[13]

Women also need specific documents in order to register to vote, such as National Identity cards. Many women in Saudi primarily use their guardian’s family cards for identification, and thus lack their own personal identity cards. Registration also requires proof of residence, which provided another obstacle for many women live with their families. In order to obtain said proof, an authorized district clerk had to provide them a validation of residence, for which the women needed a copy of a family card and residence documents.[14]

Thus, if a male guardian did not want females under his guardianship to vote, it would be easy to prevent her from doing so by either not providing her with adequate documentation or simply by not permitting her to travel to the site.

For the candidates in the election itself, 979 women were finally approved to run, compared to the 5,938 male candidates.[15] The Saudi Interior Ministry had the final decision on whether or not candidates were acceptable, and at least three women were vocal on social media about being rejected for candidacy seemingly without reason.[16] These women were primarily social activists and promoters of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

These one-sided restrictions being noted, a few new rules were also established for male voters in an attempt to make the elections fairer. As publishing photographs of women is also not permitted, a ban was placed on the publishing of all candidates’ photos, men included.[17] This did not prevent campaigning creativity. An NPR journalist, Rachel Martin, tweeted a photo of what she called ‘campaign schwag’, an image of what a female candidate was handing out to promote her campaign (prayer rugs and bracelets that were also iPhone chargers).[18]

Additionally, both male and female candidates were required to find someone of the opposite sex to act as their spokesperson while campaigning, as they are not permitted to directly address the opposite sex themselves.[19] One successful female candidate, Rasha Hefzi of Jeddah, had popular stand up comedians advocating and performing for her at all male rallies.[20]

Another change was made to the electoral process. The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 years.[21] According to Jamal El Shayyal, a reporter for Al Jazeera, this seems to demonstrate a trend of inching towards a ‘more inclusive society’.[22]

With many advocating that the Saudi population is gradually growing more tolerant, it is understandable that King Abdullah began to implement these slight improvements in human rights. However, the glacial pace of these changes, many believe, is due to the strong grip the religious elite has upon the political.[23] Thus, it could be construed that the allocation of these small ‘pieces of freedom’ are being used to pacify the public and international community, while also assuring that there is enough of a hard line that elites still have absolute control.

Elections themselves were only implemented in 2005 and are strictly for municipal councils (and one half of those seats are still directly appointed by the government).[24] The councils have influence over only local issues such as urban development projects, planning regulations, etc. The main governmental advising council, the Shura, continues to be based directly on governmental appointment. In 2013, Saudi Arabia began the process of allowing women into political positions when King Abdulllah appointed 30 women to the Shura Council.[25] This continues to indicate that while willing to change in some areas, Saudi Arabia is still dragging its feet on some matters.

Maintaining political control is one reason the Saudi government is allowing for more women’s rights. Another is the country’s economic situation. With oil prices continuing to drop and women comprising 60 per cent of Saudi’s university graduates[26], the economy requires more female participation in the workforce. More and more companies have accepted female applicants, some doing so with the additional intention of adhering to Wahhabism. In 2011, for example, shops that sold primarily female oriented products such as lingerie and perfume were required by royal decree to hire female employees so that women could go shopping while not interacting or associating with the opposite sex. This was part an overall trend and according to Bloomberg, between 2010 and 2014, there was a 48 per cent growth in women employees throughout Saudi Arabia.[27]

Others argue that these elections were also held to appease the international community. Saudi Arabia is constantly called out for a variety of human rights violations, largely due to the treatment of women, but also for such factors as the death penalty. In August of 2015, Amnesty International released an article detailing that Saudi Arabia ranked in the top three executioners worldwide. Between January 1985 and June 2015, 2,208 people were executed for matters such as ‘adultery’, ‘apostasy’, and ‘witchcraft’, with many of these executions performed in inhumane ways such as beheading.[28]

While many heralded these elections as a step forward, there were also numerous critics, both internationally and locally. Within Saudi Arabia, conservatives saw these changes as being a step too close to conforming to Western norms.[29] Some who tend to lean more liberally within the country were displeased with just how small of a step forward it was and sided with those who criticized the elections as international appeasement.[30]

The international system is founded primarily on Western norms and ideals such as individual freedom of expression, self-determination, and democracy. So, some are pleased with these election developments because they perceive it as Saudi Arabia moving towards becoming more like them. However, Saudi Arabia granting more rights to women should not be done merely to appeal to the international community.

This is especially true as Saudi Arabia is not the only country that requires great improvement regarding the rights of women. While not on the same scale, women’s rights still present an issue for the vast majority of the world’s nation states. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index of 2015, no country in the world has fully closed the gender gap. More positively, of the 145 countries covered in the report almost 96 per cent have closed the gap in health outcomes between women and men and 95 per cent have closed the gap in educational attainment. Unfortunately, both economic participation and political empowerment gaps remain wide with percentages of 59 and a measly 23 respectively.[31]

Thus, Saudi Arabia and indeed any country with numerous human rights violations should continue to be addressed by the international community and work towards improvement. However, other nations that are quick to criticize should look to improve inwardly as well. For example, one of the most visible and vocal nations, the United States, ranks only 28th on the Forum’s index, and none of the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council rank in the top 10.[32]

Still, the future of human rights in Saudi Arabia is potentially promising. With the majority of its population under the age of 30 and its people joining social networks at higher rates than any other country[33], a gradual shift in attitudes of Saudi citizens seems to be occurring, both from economic necessity and from a gradual opening of minds (arguably brought about by this exchange of ideas).

In 2012, Eman al-Nafjan wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times entitled, ‘Saudi Arabia, My Changing Home.’[34] Being a Saudi Arabian woman who grew up in Kansas and returned to live in her homeland, she provides a unique and compelling perspective on Saudi’s gradual shifts. In it, among other topics, she addresses the problematic portrayal of Saudi Arabia by western media, which tends to present facts with scaremongering tactics. The author details the experience of what she describes as an ‘average middle class Saudi woman’ and concludes that, ‘life is pretty good’[35]. However, as she also recognizes, this experience does not hold true for all Saudi Arabian women. She does provide an excellent summary of how the world can hope though, that Saudi Arabia and other countries will advance in the future: ‘We want to keep the best of our traditions, yet we must come to terms with the changes that the good things of modern life and progress can bring.’[36]

In the end, the December 2015 Saudi Arabia municipal elections ultimately represent progress. Both male and female Saudi citizens voted twenty women from around the country in. They were chosen by their fellow countrymen to represent their local political interests. Twenty more women were given a political voice and will work for the betterment of their country. Though the number is proportionally small and that voice is relatively limited, it still demonstrates a step towards equality.

[1] Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia: Women to Vote, Join Shura Council.” September 2011.

[2] NPR. “After Historic Elections In Saudi Arabia, What’s The Future For Women?” December 2015.

[3] Al Jazeera. “Saudi Arabia elects its first female politicians.” 2015.

[4] ibid

[5] PBS. 2014.

[6] Almuhaythif, Najd. “Saudi Arabia’s Guardianship System and the Violation of Women’s Rights.” The Chicago Monitor. 2015.

[7] Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia: Male Guardianship Policies Harm Women.” 2008.

[8] Al Arabiya News. “’Where’s my wife?’ Electronic SMS tracker notifies Saudi husbands.” 2012.

[9] Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia: Male Guardianship Policies Harm Women.” 2008.

[10] “USA: McDonald’s, Starbucks slammed for gender segregation in Saudi Arabia.” 2002.

[11] Zoepf, Katherine. “Talk of Women’s Rights Divides Saudi Arabia.” The New York Times. 2010.

[12] The Week. “Eleven things women in Saudi Arabia cannot do.” 2016.

[13] “Saudi Arabia: buses for women?” 2014.

[14] NPR. “Obstacles Hamper Saudi Women From Registering To Vote.” 2015.

[15]BBC. “Saudi Arabia’s women vote in election for first time.” 2015.

[16] AFP. “3 activists barred as Saudi women launch first vote bid.” The Daily Mail. 2015.

[17] Al Jazeera. “Low turnout in Saudi Arabia’s first poll open to women.” 2015.

[18] NPR. “After Historic Elections In Saudi Arabia, What’s The Future For Women?” 2015.

[19] Al Jazeera. “Saudi women begin campaigning in polls for first time.” 2015.

[20] NPR. “Saudi Women: Elections Are One Step Forward On A Long Road.” 2015.

[21] Al Jazeera. “Low turnout in Saudi Arabia’s first poll open to women.” 2015.

[22] Al Jazeera. “Saudi Arabia elects its first female politicians.” 2015.

[23] BBC. “Women in Saudi Arabia to vote and run in elections.” 2011.

[24] Ministry of Communications and Information. “Elections in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” 2016.!ut/p/z0/04_Sj9CPykssy0xPLMnMz0vMAfIjo8ziHd2dnYI9TYwM_M1DDA08Tc2djR1NDQ3dfY30g1Pz9AuyHRUBqluYmQ!!/

[25] BBC. “Saudi Arabia’s king appoints women to Shura Council.” 2013.

[26] Watson, Katy. “Winning the case for women in work: Saudi Arabia’s steps to reform.” BBC. 2012.

[27] Zafar, Rahilla. “What will Saudi Arabia’s elections do for women’s rights?” World Economic Forum. 2015.

[28] Amnesty International. “The death penalty in Saudi Arabia: Facts and Figures. 2015.

[29] Haaretz and DPA. “Only 16 Women Register to Vote in Saudi Arabia Local Elections.” 2015.

[30] NPR. “Saudi Women React To Election Results.” 2016.

[31] World Economic Forum. “The Global Gender Gap Index Results in 2015.” 2015.

[32] ibid

[33] Zafar, Rahilla. “What will Saudi Arabia’s elections do for women’s rights?” World Economic Forum. 2015.

[34] Al Nafjan, Eman. “Saudi Arabia, My Changing Home.” The New York Times. 2012.

[35] ibid

[36] ibid

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