This December, Saudi Arabia will have its third round of elections in the history of its Kingdom and the first where women will be allowed to participate. Hundreds of thousands of Saudis are expected to flock to the polls, along with dozens of candidates and a flurry of international media, but only a few of these will be women.
Women in Saudi Arabia face many obstacles, but merely getting to the polls in a country that forbids them from driving is their biggest challenge.
Earlier this year, Wall Street Journal reporter Ahmed Al Omran voiced his frustrations on Twitter as he urged ride-share apps like Careem and Uber to provide free services for women to the polling booths.1
A few hours after his initial post, Careem promptly responded, saying, “boom, we’ll do it,” and just like that, what had started as an innocent comment on Twitter became a national campaign for women’s rights.
Careem made their official announcement later that day, tweeting “Because #yourvoicemakesadifference, we will help you make a difference. For women, trips will be free to the election polls.”1
In Saudi Arabia, 80 percent of ride-share app customers are women. Restricted by laws governing their freedom, car services like Careem give Saudi women some independence and autonomy.
Saudi has a long history of limiting civil rights. While other Arab nations underwent a limited process of democratization in the 1980s and 1990s by introducing liberal reforms to their legislature, Saudi Arabia lagged behind in granting such political freedoms.2
Ultimately, in 2005, citizens were given the right to vote under the rule of King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Following a policy of appeasement, he hoped to curb the increasing dissent over the lack of participation in the political arena.
In this authoritarian regime, the municipal elections symbolized an ‘exercise in democracy’ that helped further the State’s agenda to portray Saudi Arabia as a progressive and liberalized civic society instead of a “closed and secretive society that fosters Islamic extremism” in a post 9/11 world.2
However, failing to achieve this, coupled with a decision to exclude women—a clear reflection of pluralism and lack of separation between politics and religion in the state-Saudi’s image deteriorated even further.
The next elections scheduled for October 30, 2009, didn’t take place until September 2011. The delay was allegedly to “expand the electorate and study the possibility of allowing women to vote” according to officials. Nonetheless, in 2011 the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs stated that women would not be allowed to participate “because of the kingdom’s social customs.”3
Contemporaneously, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud granted women the right to vote by a royal decree and included women in his Shura council. In a speech to the advisory board, speaking on behalf of the ulama (clerics) as well as political officials, he announced the inclusion of women in the following elections. “Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulama and others…to involve women in the Shura Council as members, starting from the next term.”4
The ulama‘s sudden change in stance could be attributed to mounting political pressures placed by King Abdullah, who grew wary of the fragile internal and external dynamics at the time. Inside the state, activists demanded that all 178 seats be elected through a democratic process. Furthermore, the Baladi campaign, run by a group of pioneering Saudi female activists, rallied the masses in taking a strong stand against the exclusion of women. Outside the state, revolutionaries overthrew regime after regime, toppling ruthless dictators and gaining freedom for their country. Fearing Eisenhower’s Domino Theory, King Abdullah made the decision to include women, just nine months after the wake of the Arab Spring.
Now in 2015, women not only have the right to vote but also to run as candidates. This is a great step forward for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, a country marred for its reputation as oppressive and rigid in its treatment towards women.
“It is also a vital step towards moderation, and for reaching a better understanding of our own society,” said a Saudi graduate student at George Washington University.5
However, taking one step forward and two back, the Saudi government has managed to find alternative ways to undercut women’s involvement in the elections. They shut down an initiative by the Baladi campaign to provide free training sessions led by UN ambassadors and leaders from across the Arab region to help candidates with their campaign.
Structural and cultural barriers such as lack of public awareness, remote registration centers, and a system of male guardianship are keeping women away from the polling booth as well.
Being placed under a male guardian, or mahram, requires women to have “male approval to be able to travel, work outside the home, or access higher education.”6
Social norms and government regulations have worked hand-in-hand to completely immobilize women. Public condemnation prevents women from using the poor forms of public transportation available. A woman getting into a cab or travelling the metro on her own “is often seen as lacking morals.”7 And although there is no law that overtly prohibits women from driving, it is customary for granting authorities to refuse licenses to women.
The rationale behind this is based in Saudi’s conservative ideology. Women must not come into contact with male traffic officers or medics (in case of an accident) and, therefore, must not be allowed to drive. A religious cleric even went as far as to say that driving could cause harm to a woman’s ovaries.8
Women’s rights activists have led several initiatives to remove the driving ‘ban’ but failed despite of their vigorous efforts. One such case is the Women2drive campaign, where women posted pictures of themselves driving on social media as a form of resistance.9,10
According to The Economist Democracy Index, the Saudi government is the seventh most authoritarian regime out of 167 countries that were surveyed, scoring far lower than its Arab neighbors.11 The birthplace of Islam and home to two of the most hallowed cities, Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia follows a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. Originating in the 18th century, Wahhabism has become well known for its subjugation of women and extremist ideology, serving as a building block for global terrorist organizations such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and more recently the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL).
Although granting voting rights for women is a tremendous achievement that should not go unrecognized, it is doubtful that women will be instrumental in making any sort of policy change. Municipal councils in reality have very little authority, as only half of electoral seats are popularly elected, while the King appoints the rest. They are in charge of ‘overseeing’ the budget, giving ‘suggestions’ for further regulation and ‘administering’ urban development projects. The only real governing body with limited influence over the monarch is the Shura council, where women are still firmly underrepresented.