Saudi citizens will cast their votes in the municipal council elections December 12, marking an historic first: the inclusion of women as both voters and candidates. This shift marks the legacy of King Abdullah’s 2011 royal decree, in which he stated, “Muslim women have given opinions and advice since the era of Prophet Muhammad. Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior clerics, to involve women in the Shura Council as members.” He added, “Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote.” Saudi women have responded with enthusiasm as over 900 are now running as candidates. Yet, most see victory as elusive due to persistent obstacles.
The royal decree has not meant the end of all legal and social barriers to female candidates. Stringent restrictions persist on women’s campaigning. The Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs forbids women from addressing male voters directly. Election Commission spokesman Judaiea al-Qahtani said that female candidates must appoint male agents to represent them in public spaces. He added that any violation of laws forbidding the mixing of sexes within election spaces will result in a fine of 10,000 Saudi riyals ($2,666). Al-Qahtani urged all female candidates to issue a “representative card” for a male agent to represent them before the deadline. When asked whether female candidates can decide to change their “male agent,” he replied that this is possible only before the deadline, meaning that once any female candidate chooses a male agent she cannot select another, even if her selected representative fails to meet expectations.
The Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs also drew protest from female candidates with its decision to prohibit them from placing their pictures on billboards. In response, the Ministry prohibited all candidates, women and men, from using their image in their campaigns. Still, female candidates are not sure if they can even use their voice in their ads as the Ministry said that women should campaign within all sharia laws.
The barriers to female candidates extend into social challenges from other prominent sociopolitical actors. Hardline clerics have launched a social media campaign prohibiting women from participating in the coming polls. Cleric Abdulrahman al-Barrak, who was praised by Osama bin Laden in 1994, issued a fatwa (religious ruling) prohibiting Saudi women from running for election, registering as voters, and even prohibiting men from voting for women. Additionally, a group of clerics visited the Saudi Grand Mufti Abdulaziz ibn Abdullah al ash-Sheikh, who has discouraged women’s participation in the past, and asked him to speak against female electoral participation.
Tribal alliances also play a major role in the balloting. The Shammar tribe endorsed a candidate from their tribe on their official Twitter account. Another tribe, Anizzah, asked three candidates to withdraw, in order to unite their votes behind a single candidate to win in the city of Hafar al-Batin. This presents a substantial competitive disadvantage for female candidates who have not won any tribal endorsements.
The Saudi government adopted many changes in this election cycle. To boost voter turnout, Saudi Arabia allowed citizens above 18 years old to register as voters, lowering the minimum age from 21. The government also raised candidates’ education requirements, stating candidates must now possess a high school diploma. Previously, proof of basic literacy was enough to qualify for the ballot. Furthermore, the government increased the number of the elected rather than appointed members in each municipal council from one half to two thirds. Saudi writer Ghassan Badkok called for more authority for elected members to enable them to select the head of each Municipal Council.
However, these changes did not address the primary issue that undermined turnout in previous elections: the limited powers of municipal councils. For example, many Saudis are concerned about the issue of undeveloped urban land. Yet Municipal Council members can only write recommendations or proposals to the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs for approval: the councils cannot take independent action on this important civic issue. Some Saudis want more substantial political change. Mohammed al-Qahtani, the head of the now banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association in Riyadh, said in 2011, “By the end of the day, you are electing individuals with no mandate and it’s just municipal councils.” He added, “We are ready to elect people to the Parliament.”
Despite these challenges, many women are determined to seize the political opening that has been given them, limited though it may be. Candidates cannot have a list of registered voters; therefore they do not know which voters their campaigns should target. That did not stop Dr. Fadiah al-Khadrah from Riyadh, who visited her potential voters and listened to their concerns while explaining her goals. This is a good example of adaptation to the restricted rules of prohibiting female candidates from meeting male voters at campaign headquarters. Halah Hakim, 42, a lawyer and a candidate in the municipal elections, believes that despite the difficulties women face regarding public distrust in handling the Municipal Council, the law nevertheless supports female participation in the election.
Lubna Alrabdi, 25, is one of the youngest female candidates running in the upcoming municipal elections. She believes that elections grow in importance along with the number of registered voters, but in this election the number of registered voters is disappointingly low. Although she is supported by her family, she occasionally hears comments dismissive of women’s ability to have a positive impact in local governance. She believes that many Saudis lack faith not only in women, but in the municipal elections themselves. She added that, “There is nothing to guarantee a seat for women; there is no quota. So if women don’t secure any seats, which is very likely, then their participation in this election will be useless.”
Maha Al Hathely, a candidate running for the Qassim municipal council, said that when she decided to challenge many “cultural” barriers and to run as a candidate, she was surprised by the support she received, particularly from women. She added, “I know that I will not get elected, but I decided to run to pave the way for change.”