JEDDAH (Reuters) - Sara Abbar knew what would happen when she and her 28-year-old daughter tried to register to vote in Saudi Arabia’s municipal elections.
The vote, set for September, ruled out in advance any participation by the country’s 9 million women.
“We will keep trying again and again until we get our right,” she said after meeting a resolute “no” from the election official she encountered at a voter registration center in Jeddah when registration began on April 23.
“The demand for our rights should never be postponed so we will continue calling for them.”
The municipal council elections, only the second such experiment in more than 40 years, highlight the contradictions that arise when an absolute monarchy rooted in austere religious authority dabbles in democracy.
The kingdom allows no political parties or an elected parliament. Religious police patrol the streets to enforce segregation of the sexes and ensure women are modestly dressed.
Its government announced in March it would hold polls for half the seats in municipal councils, but ruled out female candidates or voters. Local officials cited logistical difficulties arranging sex-segregated polling stations.
The decision sparked a campaign which Abbar and her daughter have joined called Baladi, Arabic for My Country, organised by women activists on Facebook and Twitter, to show up at polling stations around the kingdom and demand their right to vote.
Slogans aimed at encouraging men to register were plastered on buildings designated for voter registration. “Be a part of the decision making process,” read one.
But in many parts of the kingdom, it was the women who responded to those calls. From the Western province in Mecca, Jeddah and Medina, to the Eastern province and even the capital of Riyadh, dozens of women headed to voter registration centers on April 23 to demand participation.
“Through this pressure we are attempting to change the decision, saying that the reason given is not convincing,” said Nailah Attar, one of the campaign organizers. “We will continue trying until they stop us.”
Organizers intend to force the issue of their participation through the end of registration on July 28.
“We expect that (female participation) can happen this year, and until the last minute we will keep thinking that and we have high hopes for it to happen,” said Norah Alsowayan, who is based in Riyadh.
For her, the attempt to vote could chip away at Saudi Arabia’s “guardianship” system, which requires women to show written permission from a father, husband or brother in order to travel, work or undergo certain surgeries.
“Women here are looked at as minors and it is crucial for them to be recognized as competent individuals. If that happens there will be positive steps to follow and the society’s outlook on women will change,” Alsowayan said.
Activists dismiss the claim of logistical barriers to women voters, noting that 2005 elections for the other half of council seats also excluded women, and that an election scheduled for 2009 was delayed on grounds of other logistics.
“If we don’t seek our right, no one else will seek it for us,” said one would-be voter, Yasmine Attar, outside a Jeddah voting registration center.
“All the steps that have been taken for women’s rights were fought for, it wasn’t given to them.”
While groups of women across the country struggle to register for the vote, a growing number of male activists say there is no point in voting at all.
While the municipal councils’ role is to oversee projects headed by municipalities, many citizens complain the councils do have no real authority or influence in decision making.
Blogger Mahmoud al-Sabbagh (here) says the country's first-ever municipal elections in 1939 gave more authority to councils than the latest round in 2005.
Councils then could oversee and approve municipal projects, whereas their role now is limited to suggestions submitted to central authority, he wrote.
“I will certainly abstain from participating in electing a puppet municipal council with no power,” Sabbagh wrote on his Twitter page on April 23, calling others to do the same.
Sabbagh and fellow activists plan to register for the elections before abstaining from voting in order to demonstrate the number of boycotters.
“We should all issue electing cards starting from today, April 23, before abstaining from voting in September,” Mahmoud Sabbagh, a resident of Jeddah, posted on his Twitter page on the first day of registration.
The boycott calls underline discontent with the pace of reforms Saudi King Abdullah promised after coming to power in 2005. They have languished in a struggle between conservatives who fear change and liberals who want it intensified.
“Men have gained their right to participate so they don’t have the problem,” said Alsowayan. “We still did not get that right as women and now it is our goal to obtain that right.”
Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Joseph Logan