Saudi women launch maiden elec­tion bid

3 activists barred

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

RIYADH: Hun­dreds of Saudi women be­gan cam­paign­ing for pub­lic of­fice yes­ter­day, in a first for women in the con­ser­va­tive Mus­lim king­dom’s slow re­form process, even as three activists were dis­qual­i­fied. More than 900 women are stand­ing along­side thou­sands of men in the Dec 12 mu­nic­i­pal ballot, which will also mark the first time women are al­lowed to vote.

“I’ve been elim­i­nated as a can­di­date for the mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions,” Lou­jain Hathloul said in a tweet. Saudi au­thor­i­ties de­tained Hathloul for more than two months af­ter she tried to drive into the king­dom last De­cem­ber from the United Arab Emi­rates, in de­fi­ance of a Saudi ban on fe­male mo­torists. She had said she wanted to run “to in­crease the per­cent­age of women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion”.

An­other driv­ing ac­tivist, Ta­madour AlYami, told AFP her name was also dropped from the fi­nal list of au­tho­rized can­di­dates. She vowed to ap­peal, “but I don’t think it will change any­thing.” And Nas­sima Al-Sadah, a hu­man rights ac­tivist and would-be can­di­date in the Gulf coast city of Qatif, said of­fi­cials in­formed her late Satur­day that her name had been re­moved. “I don’t know why,” said Sadah, who was trained in elec­tion­eer­ing by the Na­tional Demo­cratic In­sti­tute, a Wash­ing­ton non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Ruled by King Sal­man, oil-rich Saudi Ara­bia has no elected leg­is­la­ture and has faced in­tense Western scru­tiny over its rights record. The coun­try’s first mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions were held in 2005, fol­lowed by an­other vote in 2011. In both cases only men were al­lowed to par­tic­i­pate. From restau­rants to banks, of­fices - and elec­tion fa­cil­i­ties - the sexes are strictly seg­re­gated in the king­dom. “We will vote for the women even though we don’t know any­thing about them,” Um Fawaz, a teacher in her 20s, said in Hafr al-Batin city. “It’s enough that they are women,” she said.

The ab­so­lute monar­chy, which ap­plies a strict in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam, has faced wide­spread crit­i­cism for a lack of equal rights. Saudi Ara­bia is the only coun­try in the world where women are not al­lowed to drive. They must also cover them­selves in black from head-to-toe in pub­lic and re­quire per­mis­sion from male fam­ily mem­bers to travel, work or marry. But Al­jazi Al-Hossaini, a can­di­date in Riyadh, said she did not need any man in her fam­ily to grant per­mis­sion for her can­di­dacy. “It’s by my­self,” the man­age­ment con­sul­tant said.

The late King Ab­dul­lah said women would par­tic­i­pate in this year’s vote. In 2013, he also named women to the ap­pointed Shura Coun­cil, which advises the cab­i­net. Ab­dul­lah died in Jan­uary and was suc­ceeded by Sal­man, who stuck to the elec­tion timetable. In other Gulf states, women have had some vot­ing rights for sev­eral years. About 7,000 peo­ple are vy­ing for seats on 284 mu­nic­i­pal coun­cils, ac­cord­ing to the Saudi elec­toral com­mis­sion.

Only around 131,000 women have signed up to vote, com­pared with more than 1.35 mil­lion men, out of a na­tive Saudi pop­u­la­tion of al­most 21 mil­lion. Al­though the vot­ing age has been low­ered to 18 from 21 and the pro­por­tion of elected coun­cilors has in­creased to two-thirds, win­ning a seat re­mains a chal­lenge for women. Hossaini said she had hoped to set up a cam­paign tent in Riyadh’s Diriyah area. “When I asked the man to give per­mis­sion for his land... he re­fused,” she said. Like other con­tenders, she plans to fo­cus on­line, and has her own web­site.

In the Red Sea city of Jed­dah, Sameera Ab­dul­lah AlShamat was also re­ly­ing on Twit­ter, In­sta­gram and other In­ter­net fo­rums widely used in the king­dom. “My daugh­ter and two sons are run­ning my cam­paign,” said Shamat, a char­ity worker. Elec­toral democ­racy is still a novel con­cept in a coun­try where tribal loy­al­ties re­main strong and the in­flu­ence of “wasta” - know­ing the right peo­ple - is pow­er­ful. Saud Al-Shammry, 43 of Riyadh, said it was time for a new ap­proach. “We strive for de­vel­op­ment and real change, free from tribal or fam­ily bi­ases,” he said, adding “there’s a big pos­si­bil­ity” he could vote for a woman, if her plat­form is right. — AFP

RIYADH: Al­jazi Al-Hossaini, a can­di­date for the mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil in the town of Diriyah shows an elec­toral cam­paign li­cense is­sued by the cen­tral mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions com­mit­tee yes­ter­day. — AFP

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