Saudi women won polls against odds

Municipal elections are rarely followed abroad and are even less likely to capture the world’s attention.

But Saudi Arabia’s just-concluded election to local bodies evoked enormous interest around the world. This is the first time ever that Saudi woman not only voted in elections but also ran for public office. Twenty women were elected. However, it is not just these 20 women who have emerged victorious from the election.

This is a victory for all Saudi Arabians, women and men, who have been struggling for decades to win women their right to exercise their franchise. Of course, what was achieved in Saudi Arabia on Sunday was just a small step in this direction.

While 1.35 million men were registered to vote, the names of just 1,31,000 women figured on electoral rolls. And it was not easy for women to contest. Despite the new rules allowing women to contest, election authorities were reluctant to register them as candidates.

No reason was given for their disqualification but several among them are well-known activists and writers. Women candidates came up against numerous obstacles during campaigning. They were not allowed to meet male voters or address gatherings that included men.

They depended on men to represent them before male voters. Photographs of women candidates were not allowed on campaign material. Thus, the electoral playing field was hardly level.

 The number of women who will sit in Saudi Arabia’s local councils is undoubtedly miniscule. It is unlikely, therefore, that they will be able to bring in much change.

Still, this is a beginning and hopefully in the years to come, women’s representation at all levels of government will grow. This has been the experience in employment, for instance.

According to official figures, the number of women in the Saudi workforce increased from 23,000 in 2004 to over 4,00,000 in 2015.

 For Saudi women keen to hold public office, the road ahead will not be easy. Saudi Arabia is deeply conservative. Women are not allowed to step outside their homes without a close male relative accompanying them. Many laws reek of misogyny and social attitudes endorse repression of women.

It is likely that the 20 women who won seats in local councils will find their work environment hostile. They will face fierce resistance and smear campaigns.

Already, the country’s highest religious authority, the grand mufti has condemned the participation of women in elections as “opening the door to evil.” However, the women must not lose heart. They are pioneers. Millions of Saudi women are looking to them for leadership and inspiration.

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