In Saudi Arabia, a country in which women can do virtually nothing without the permission of their male guardians and are banned from voting, the last thing electoral officials expected was for a group of women to march in to a voter’s registration centre with the firm intention of signing up on electoral registers. Yet that’s exactly what happened in Riyadh on April 24, and the scene was caught on camera.
A day earlier, immediately after the electoral lists were open to register for the upcoming municipal elections, dozens of equally determined women had tried to pull off the same feat in registration centres in the Saudi cities of Jeddah, Mecca, Khobar and Nairan. The daring attempts were coordinated via Facebook and Twitter, a sign that new technologies may be helping Saudi women tackle century-old patriarchal traditions.
As a result, Saudi authorities were forced to officially reassert that women would not be allowed to vote during the municipal elections, arguing that the electoral commission was “not ready” to collect their votes. On April 28, a Saudi feminist activist lodged a complaint against the government for having denied women the right sign up onto the electoral register.
The next municipal elections, to be held on September 22, are only the second elections in the history of Saudi Arabia. During the first elections, in 2005, Saudis elected half of the country’s municipal councilors, whilst the other half were chosen by authorities.
In Saudi Arabia, a country whose laws have been inspired by a strict version of Islam, women do not have the right to travel without the permission of a guardian, they cannot drive, and they are considered inferior to men in divorce or inheritance cases.
Post written in collaboration with Ségolène Malterre, journalist at FRANCE 24.
A man in the office said to us, "It’s great that you came."
Nuha was one of the women who went to the registration office in Riyad to demand that her name be put on the electoral register. An active online promoter of Saudi women's rights, she is the creator the Facebook group "Saudi Women Revolution".
We organised this initiative using Twitter and Facebook. We all expected the officers to refuse, but the reactions were different in different towns. In Khobar, two women were so insistent that they successfully convinced the men to let them write their names down on the register even if, of course, several days later the registration centre informed them that their registration had no value whatsoever. In contrast, in another registration centre, the group of women was broken up by the police and two women spent several hours at the police station.
"The problem is not a lack of preparation; the authorities have had six years to organize these elections"
It is ridiculous that the authorities pretend that they are not ready. During the 2005 elections, they promised us that we would be able to vote in the next elections. The problem is clearly not a lack of preparation; the authorities have had six years to organize these elections. According to officials, it is complicated to arrange elections in a country where men and women are not supposed to mix with each other. This is an absurd argument as elections take place in schools, buildings which already separate boys from girls.
When we were at the centre, we insisted on the fact that there is no law which states that we cannot vote [Saudi electoral law grants “all citizens” the right to vote, ed.]. It is exactly the same case for the driving ban. These bans have become the norm but when you ask which law prevents you from doing this or that, we always get the same response: “We’ll discuss it later”.
"We’re not even asking for total equality between the sexes"
Today we are hoping to obtain basic rights which will mean that we are no longer treated like children. For the moment, we are not asking for total equality between the sexes. All we want is the right to vote, the right to move around freely, and the end of the masculine guardian system (a system which places women, from birth, under the legal authority of a man).
At the end of the 1950s, King Faycal decided to set up schools for girls, even though a lot of people were against it. He did it because he knew that it was the right thing to do. One can’t imagine such a gesture happening today. It’s a shame because the county is ready for change. My husband and the men in my family all support me. Even the man that you can see in the video was friendly. He was certainly surprised but he finished by saying: “It’s great that you came. We don’t understand why the government doesn’t move forward.”