Thursday, February 17, 2005

Women and Elections

The following article was written by Raid Qusti and published in Arab News, one of the Middle East's leading English language dailies. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.

By Raid Qusti

Covering the recent municipal elections in the Kingdom was a thrilling experience. On one hand, as a journalist, I was able to meet both candidates and voters. On the other hand, as a Saudi, the whole process was unprecedented in our nation’s history. Along with many others, I hope the elections marked the beginning of public participation in decision-making. Almost all of those I spoke to said that they were doing this from a feeling of national duty. Their love for their country, first and foremost, was what compelled them first to register as voters and then cast their votes to choose their candidates. They also felt the whole process has begun a new era in Saudi Arabia that will pave the way for larger elections: The entire municipal council and the Shoura Consultative Council as well.

The Riyadh municipality elections were also an opportunity for foreign journalists to speak openly to Saudis and ask them about their reactions and feelings. It was a chance for them to make their analysis as a result of direct contact with the people and not from talking to other journalists, international analysts or even those who regularly comment on things in Saudi Arabia but have never actually managed to visit the country.

What I noticed from the questions asked by foreign journalists in the press conferences organized by the Election Commission was that they were focused mainly on two issues: Women not being allowed to vote and also on whether these small elections would lead to larger ones in future.

Commission officials cited the reasons why the government was unable to include women in these elections. The reasons were, as we have heard many times, the technical difficulties of having separate voting centers for women, as well as employing women in cities and rural areas to receive women voters. Because of the limited time available, it simply was not possible, they said. Even though many women readers of Arab News criticized me in the past for supporting the government’s reasons for not including women in this round, I still believe them to be practical. Interestingly, this same topic was brought up round a dinner table with my relatives.

Both my father-in-law and my wife — herself a media person and a supporter of women’s rights — believe that at present, allowing women to vote would not have been practical due to the social conditions in Saudi Arabia.

Their views as well as mine do not mean, however, that a woman who chooses to vote or nominate herself should be prevented from doing so in the future. As a citizen, that should be her right. From my point of view, I am not concerned about the practicalities of setting up separate women’s centers or employing women to do certain jobs in cities or rural areas. Those things could be overcome with proper planning and carried out without problems. What is beyond that is what I want to comment on.

Having seen how candidates in Riyadh plastered their photos on street advertisements and in local newspapers, how would a woman candidate have run her campaign? We must bear in mind that many Saudis still believe that a woman’s picture should only be viewed by close relatives and certainly not by unrelated members of the public.

Let’s get practical. Would a Saudi woman actually want to place her picture and her full name on a street advertisement or in a newspaper advertisement? She wouldn’t. And even if she were allowed to do so by the authorities, only a handful of the female community would actually consider doing it. If we open our daily newspapers and read columns by female journalists, we will see that the writers are faceless. Not because the law prevents a woman from putting her photo beside her column but because she chooses not to for social and cultural reasons.

Hypothetically, let us say that women did not need to place street advertisements or advertisements in newspapers. How else would they reach the public? Would they set up tents like their male counterparts? And even if they did, since the religious leaders here deem mixing sinful, how would she receive men and women who are curious to ask about her platform? Would the tents be split in half, one side for men and the other for women? Would she even allow herself to go to the male’s side to address them and answer questions?

Or would it all have to be done over microphones or split units? And continuing hypothetically, let us say one of the women won a seat on the council. She then becomes an official. Would our society accept the fact of a woman appearing in public in a press conference, talking to the media and making official announcements, as is the case in neighboring Gulf states? And what about the municipality itself? How would male and female colleagues within the municipality interact since they would have to be in separate buildings or departments; would all contact be over the phone?

Clearly that would be the only possibility since mixing the sexes is considered sinful.

Readers should not misunderstand me. We are not Bahrain or Kuwait or any other Gulf state.

As long as traditions and customs that are not universal in the 21st century prevail in the Kingdom and as long as we continue to teach in our universities that “Listening to a woman’s voice is sinful,” women who honestly believe they have a role in our society’s development will be either labeled “brainwashed by the West” or “sinners.”