In a suffocatingly patriarchal society, Saudi women will vote in polls for first time. It should be seen as the real spring in favour of democracy.
December 12 is bound to go down the annals of history of West Asia for what can be dubbed as the ‘Real Arab Spring’. The day will see women casting their votes as well as contesting for the first time in the oil rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Ruled by the royal ‘Saud’ family that is known for its patronage to ultra-conservative Islam (Wahhabi Islam) that gives very little public space and role for women, this development marks a new epoch in what could be a series of measures to give a bright and promising half of the population their due place under the sun.
December 12 sees Saudi women participate in the Municipal Elections for Local Councils. According to the Saudi Electoral Commission, around 900 women contestants out of the 7,000 odd candidates are vying for seats on 284 councils. The Councils, as the name suggests, deal with mostly local issues. Critics tout this ‘historic’ event as an ‘eye wash’ to distract attention from the abysmal human rights record that the country faces. Saudi Arabia has seen 150 executions this year alone, an all time high in 20 years. The Municipal Elections might be the much-needed breather to a regime that is under heavy international scrutiny and scanner. Another point that the critics make is that the municipal elections fill half the seats in the municipal councils, with the king selecting the other half. Thus, according to the critics, the move is more of a ‘lip service to women empowerment’ as very little power will actually vest with them. ‘Infact in an election where the women contestants are not allowed to address voters directly, where strict gender segregation rules are still in place, very little can be expected’, they say.
The brighter side is that 900 might seem a small number but can prove lethal as women make up about 20 per cent of a total of half a million registered voters in a country of nearly 30 million people. It is a fact that proves their potential to make a lasting impact. It is in the context that this Elections should be seen as the first baby step in what is going to be a long and gradual process of parity and partnership with the fairer sex. Most of the contenders in this historic election are activists and businesswomen. They say the move might not make much difference in their lifetime but are convinced that it is bound to make a substantial difference in the lives of next generation.
Also, the move should be lauded as it comes at the hands of King Salman, considered to be pro-hardliner. It was feared that he might not continue with the reforms initiated by the late King Abdullah who through a 2011 order gave women the first opportunity for any kind of public participation. Infact just before his demise, the former King is said to have issued a royal decree mandating the Consultative Council, a royally appointed body that advises the King, to have at least 20 per cent women on board, an initiative yet to see the light of the day.
Saudi women have had a long history of struggle for bare minimum rights and facilities provided to women in the modern world. They are forbidden to drive, and are not allowed to travel or go to school without a male guardian. Just 3 months ago Saudi Women were allowed to vote for the first time. There have been a couple of other boosts for women in the recent past. One is, removing a ban on certain jobs that women have not been able to take up all these years. Second and the big one is that for the first time, widowed and divorced women will be able to have control over family matters. They can apply for something called a ‘family identity card’. They won’t require the permission of a man or the courts to do basic things, like registering their kids for school or getting medical treatment. In a suffocatingly patriarchal society this comes as a big relief and shows the changing mindset.
The long and short of it is that around 900 women run for office on December 12. Surely that is not a number that can be ignored. Will it bring good news to women in Islamic regimes of various shades? Only time will tell. In the meantime we can conclude in the words of Amnesty International that says, “We can only hope that this announcement on voting will be the first in a long line of reforms that guarantee Saudi women the rights that they have been demanding for so long.” As a friend and strategic partner of this West Asian monarchy, Bharat goes a step further and hopes such promising and progressive measures not only help in re-building a vibrant Saudi Arabia but inspires the rest of West Asia in nurturing a culture of equality and empowerment of the fairer sex.
K Aayushi (The writer is a freelancer & writes
on J&K, Women and Governance