JEDDAH, 19 September 2004 — The General Committee for Municipal Elections announced yesterday that women would not be allowed to run in the upcoming municipal elections. This puts an end to speculation about women's role in the Feb. 10 elections, Al-Jazirah newspaper said.
The paper quoted an unnamed source as rejecting speculation about women running for the elections. Responding to intentions of some women, military men and municipal officials to run for office, the source said they had misunderstood the law which had clearly stated that "all muwatin (male citizens) can participate in elections." The law did not use the word "muwatina (female citizen), thus excluding women from contesting elections, the paper said.
Dr. Abdul Aziz Al-Uwaisheg, a legal analyst, said that under Saudi law, one cannot exclude a category except based on a written text. "Excluding a category cannot be done by a committee," he pointed out. To him, therefore, that means that the decision not to include women in the process is not final. According to the municipal law, the three categories excluded from voting are: military personnel, municipal employees and a newly added category — women.
Dr. Suhaila Zein-Al Abedeen of the National Committee for Human Rights says that voting and running for office is a right of all women in Islam. She stressed that women pledged allegiance to the Prophet (pbuh) in the early days of Islam. Women gave their support to the Prophet (pbuh) in war and later, they worked as inspectors on communities which is equivalent to the position of a minister of municipal affairs today.
To Dr. Suhaila, women are directly involved in municipal affairs and sometimes suffer more than men from bad service. For example, lack of water, sewage problems and electricity cuts impact women more than men since they are at home and have to deal with the resulting problems. She pointed out, "Women are perfectly capable of public work. If not, why do we waste millions of riyals on women's education? Saudi women are as aware and capable of participating in the elections as men are."
In communities where women's roles as housewives and mothers are seen as correct, women's needs and views only add to the debate about how much women can contribute to society. A mother of four said, "I don't understand. What is the basis for excluding women? If her vote isn't against Shariah and doesn't trespass any red lines, then what's the harm? A woman is a citizen just as men are. She is the other half unless the authorities intend to have all-men districts and all-women districts."
Dr. Hatoon Al-Fasi, a professor of history at King Saud University in Riyadh said: "I refuse to believe unnamed sources. There is no official statement or law stating that women cannot run for election and until there is, I think that women should talk about it and those who want to run should go ahead with their agendas. We should act positively."
The first Saudi woman to announce her intention to run in the elections, Nadia Bakhurji, said that her agenda was ready. An engineer, Nadia said that since her announcement to run, she has received many letters and comments from people who support her; in addition, her family is standing by her. "I was optimistic about my decision, but now I am disappointed to hear that women will be excluded. It is a huge mistake to exclude us from this process; women can add value and they have a great deal to contribute."
At the same time, she conceded that breaking barriers takes time. Nadia said that she will offer her agenda to any candidate who is willing to adopt it. She even suggests that if women cannot be involved directly in the elections that they could form a think-tank in order to supply other candidates.
Representing the views that women should not run for office, an anonymous Shoura Council member said: "What do women want with voting and municipality elections? Why would they want to trouble themselves with things that are new and unfamiliar? These issues are against their nature so why ask for trouble?"