Monday, September 20, 2004


By William Fisher

Western women who are frustrated by the ‘glass ceiling’ – listen up: In Saudi Arabia, the ceiling is made of steel!

In February, if not postponed yet again, Saudi Arabia will have its first-ever municipal elections. But in this first tiny step toward more representative governance, women won’t be allowed to run for office.

Although they played a significant role in pressing for these elections, Saudi writer Maha Al-Hujailan says women in the Kingdom are considered “mere appendages of men without an independent identity.“

She adds: “The exclusion of women from political activities amounts to legitimizing a dangerous mentality founded on the notion that women have only a marginal, or no, role in nation building…The absence of women’s voices in the municipal election will undoubtedly have a negative impact on social development…By supporting an ideology based on sexist concepts, the whole society stands to lose an opportunity for a great social transformation with far-reaching consequences.”

Dr. Suhaila Zein-Al Abedeen of the Kingdom’s National Committee for Human Rights says that voting and running for office is a right of all women in Islam. She points out, “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.”

Women, she says, “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.”

The first Saudi woman to announce her intention to run in the elections, Nadia Bakhurji, says her agenda is ready. An engineer, she says that since her announcement to run, she has received many expressions of support.

“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 concedes that breaking barriers takes time. She says she will offer her agenda to any candidate who is willing to adopt it, and suggests that if women cannot be involved directly in the elections, they could form a think-tank to supply other candidates.

Abeer Mishkhas and Somayya Jabarti, writing in Jeddah’s Arab News, quote “an anonymous Shoura (Advisory) Council member” as saying: ‘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?’

A mother of four takes a very different view, the writers say. “I don’t understand. What is the basis for excluding women? If her vote isn’t against Shariah (Islamic law) 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.”

Saudi Arabia’s decision to hold municipal elections was hailed as ‘proof’ that the Kingdom was serious about democratic reform. The exclusion of women candidates makes a farce of this baby step.

About the writer: William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development, and served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration.