“My Country”: How Saudi Arabia is Undermining Women’s Newfound Right to Vote

Saudi women have begun registering to vote for December’s municipal elections, a development that the international press has greeted with extensive, and mostly positive, coverage. Yet, while the Saudi government welcomes glowing descriptions of its slow yet steady progress in advancing women’s rights, its actual reforms remain superficial. Saudi authorities are doing everything within their power to ensure that women do not build a democratic culture—one which promotes equal civic participation for men and women—around their new right to vote. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the government’s halting of women voter education courses run by the Baladi (or “my country”) Initiative.

In preparation for Saudi’s upcoming elections, the Baladi Initiative provided a forum for women, whom authorities have typically shut out of civil society, to learn about the electoral process. The Saudi daily Al-Hayat reported that Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs (MOMRA) facilitated the closure. And in doing so, the MOMRA, a seemingly mundane bureaucracy focused on infrastructure and urban planning, signaled its complicity in a patriarchal system intent on barring women from the political sphere.

The ministry had previously intimated that it would not interfere in women’s civil society efforts around the vote. In 2014, the Minister of Municipal Affairs, Prince Mansour bin Miteb, “confirmed that ‘women have the right to contest the elections just like men, without facing any discrimination,” and that “the arrangements and regulations governing women’s participation in the civic elections will be in compliance with Islamic Shari’a law and international standards of gender equality.”

Earlier this month, however, the ministry shut down the Baladi Initiative over unexplained licensing concerns and fears that the education programs were geared toward commercial purposes. Dr. Hatoun al-Fasi, public coordinator of the Baladi Initiative, was reduced to remarking to Al-Hayat that this justification was “illogical,” patiently pointing out that the program offers courses to potential women voters and candidates free of charge. The timing is even more curious; Baladi’s women training initiative has been operating for several years, and, according to al-Fasi, trained 350 women across 10 provinces from 2013 to 2014. Surely, MOMRA has had time to review its “commercial” activities.

The ministry’s evasive reasoning exemplifies the Saudi government’s aversion to being held liable for its actions, as well as the pervasive governing opacity which leaves many Saudis in the dark. Given the Baladi Initative’s activities, and given the Minister’s stated support for women’s right to vote, the ministry’s justification is an insufficient, obscure, unpromising excuse at best.

In Saudi Arabia, government officials regularly utilize excuses of this type to avoid upholding human rights or living up to their international obligations. To arrest women’s rights, for example, officials have blamed the country’s conservative clerics, illustrating them as kinds of puppet masters when it is the officials themselves who are holding back progress. The late King Abdullah was remembered as “a reformer who’s promoted women’s rights,” while being forced to “contend with religious conservatives – whose support helps keep him in power.” That King Abdullah imprisoned four of his daughters for their outspoken support of women’s rights, however, doesn’t fit this narrative.

With the government already having announced that women’s participation in the upcoming elections does not conflict with Sharia law, another excuse was needed to curtail women’s democratic empowerment. Licensing and imagined commercial malfeasance will have to do. When the Saudi government offers opportunities for female advancement, or any type of gender-equalizing pro-democracy reform, only to revoke them, it does not send a message of strength or cohesion. A government that wants votes without voter education is concerned only with the style of reform, not its substance.

Rachel Kreisman is an intern at ADHRB