In Saudi Arabia's Local Elections, (Some) Women Vote and Win
by Irfan Al-Alawi and Stephen Schwartz
The process this year was notable mainly in its inclusion, for the first time, of women as candidates and voters. According to BBC News, some 6,000 male candidates and almost 1,000 women competed for 2,100 seats. The Saudi ministry of municipal and rural affairs will appoint 1,050 more councilors, a third of the total. The ministry announced that voting had been supervised by 35,000 workers at 1,296 polling places. The age of eligibility to vote was 18.
In early results, the Los Angeles Times reported that 20 women had won office. According to the same paper, Hamad Al-Omar, speaking for the country's General Election Commission, said the female voting rate was high, with 81 percent of 130,000 women registered to vote doing so. But male participation was low, at 44 percent.
The election hardly places the Saudi monarchy in the ranks of Western-style democracies. The franchise for women was limited, compared with 1.35 million men registered to vote. The voting roll is further reduced in that the kingdom's total population is about 28 million, although as much as a third are immigrants without citizenship. According to the CIA World Factbook, 50 percent of Saudis are above age 25.
In the run-up to the Saturday election, women candidates could not address male audiences. Saudi women must still contend with a ban on their right to drive cars, imposition of the body-covering abaya and niqab or face veil, and denial of their judicial rights.
Most personal decisions involving travel, work, education, and custody of children by women must still be approved by a male relative or "guardian," and women who are raped may be prosecuted for having been in the presence of an unrelated man. In addition, the kingdom is still plagued by honor murders, as well as forced marriages and divorces, among other indignities.
Nevertheless, the Saudi vote marks an important turn in the country's internal system and international situation, and suggests aspects of its probable future.
Women's participation in local elections was promised in 2011 by then-reigning King Abdullah but they were not included in that year's vote. Abdullah also pledged appointment of women to the Shura Council, an unelected national institution, numbering 150 people, that consults with the ruler. In 2013, 30 women were named to the body.
The municipal councils, like the Shura Council, are advisory rather than legislative, although the municipal councils administer local budgets.
King Abdullah wanted clearly to be viewed as a reformer of the Saudi state. When he died in January of this year and was succeeded by his half-brother, King Salman, observers of Saudi affairs wondered if Salman would continue the course of minor but positive changes initiated by Abdullah or would drag the country backward.
The fulfillment of Abdullah's promise to allow women a narrow right to vote and be elected is an encouraging step. King Salman may be preoccupied with stability as the kingdom counters the Iranian-backed Houthi insurrection in Yemen. In addition, the Saudi gerontocracy – Salman is 79 years old – is giving way visibly to younger members of the family. To avoid disorder among his subjects, Salman may seek to continue the modernization of the state to which Abdullah was committed.
More important, however, may be the revived scrutiny of Wahhabism, the official Saudi interpretation of Sunni Islam, in a realm where Islam alone is permitted public religious observance. Wahhabis support a parallel, clerical power in addition to the royal family. Saudi Wahhabism has maintained its harsh treatment of women throughout the history of the kingdom.
Now, however, Wahhabism is also under question as the inspiration for the terrorism committed by the so-called "Islamic State" (ISIS). Gender segregation and subordination of women, in addition to such atrocious practices as public beheadings and wrecking of cultural heritage, are shared by the Saudi state and ISIS, notwithstanding that the Saudis have recognized the need to combat the extremists.
King Abdullah criminalized agitation in favor of ISIS, collection of money for its support, and participation in its ranks, with punishment of five to 30 years' imprisonment for any such assistance to terrorists. But it would be folly to think that in a country as committed to Wahhabism as the kingdom, ISIS sympathizers do not remain active.
By opening up elections to women, King Salman seems to point away from the fundamentalism of the hard-line Wahhabis. As noted by The Washington Post, the Wahhabi clergy did not oppose women voting.
The ISIS "caliphate," with its totalitarian style of governance, cannot be imagined taking such a step. Saudi Arabia has joined the anti-ISIS military coalition, but its ideological contribution to the anti-terror front, in opening up to gender equality and promoting civil society, while curbing the extremism of the Wahhabis, would be a most significant development. The Saudi kingdom has great responsibilities in the world, as the leading Islamic power, and much more must be done.