A group of Saudi female activists launched an online campaign calling for the participation of women in municipal elections both as voters and candidates, amid arguments over the conflict between law and tradition.
Baladi, Arabic for “my country,” is the name of the campaign launched Sunday on the social networking website Facebook by Saudi female activists who object to making municipal elections exclusive to men and ask for women’s participation in the upcoming elections.
The campaign, which attracted 600 members 24 hours after its launch, identifies itself as “a female initiative that aims at empowering Saudi women and allowing them to represent their people all over the kingdom.”
The creators of the Facebook group call for giving women the right to run and vote in the 2011 elections and recommend providing the necessary training for women who want to be members of municipal councils as well as raise awareness about the importance of voting in the elections.
Organizers of the campaign also point out that the right of women to take part in elections is stated in several international treaties to which Saudi is signatory and argue that there is nothing in Islamic teachings that prohibit the participation of women in political life.
Winning is not important
The main aim of the campaign is for women to be granted the right to vote and run in municipal elections regardless of winning or losing, said Hatoun Ajwad al-Fasi, one of the organizers.
“We have been fighting for women’s right to take part in elections since 2004,” she told AlArabiya.net. “And since that time, they have been telling us that the matter needs preparation and that society is not yet ready for this step.”
Fasi refused to compare Saudi with other Western societies where women started taking part in political life a long time after elections were introduced.
“We are now in the third millennium and there is no way women will be marginalized in modern times.”
Fasi explained that winning the elections is not the focus of the campaign since the priority is making sure women are given the right to be part of the election process.
“The most important thing is that I become equal to men. Winning or losing depends on the circumstances.”
Fasi said that she and other women activists do not see a reason for postponing the matter any longer and that they will not accept the excuse that society is not ready.
“We shouldn’t be imprisoned by traditions and we do not want to wait forever,” she concluded.
The most important thing is that I become equal to men. Winning or losing depends on the circumstances
Saudi activist Hatoun Ajwad al-Fasi
Duty and right
Rights activist Dr. Fawzeya Abu Khaled argued that women’s participation in elections is a duty as much as a right.
“It is woman’s national duty to take part in elections because through municipal councils she can offer many services and contribute to the development of society,” she told AlArabiya.net.
Abu Kahled, who will take part in the upcoming elections as a voter not a candidate, agrees with Fasi as far as traditions are concerned.
“We cannot use traditions as a pretext for not allowing women to participate in elections. Traditions govern a society for a given time then this society changes and with this change new traditions emerge.”
It is woman’s national duty to take part in elections because through municipal councils
Saudi activist Dr. Fawzeya Abu Khaled
Law and tradition
There is no law that prohibits women from running and voting in elections and every Saudi citizen has the right to take part in elections regardless of sex, said Tarek al-Qasabi, spokesman of Riyadh Municipal Council.
“Everyone, whether men or women, has the right to run for elections and offer better services to citizens,” Qasabi told the Saudi newspaper al-Watan. “It is very normal that women ask for this right.”
However, Suleiman al-Uqaili, former editor-in-chief of al-Watan newspaper, argued that in many cases traditions are much stronger than law and that is why the participation of women in elections requires an official endorsement.
“The Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, which organizes the elections, has to issue a resolution that breaks away from long-established traditions and allows women to take part,” he told AlArabiya.net.
Uqaili added that social traditions have more or less replaced the law and that is why governmental interference is required to activate laws overpowered by traditions.
“Women’s driving is an example of how traditions conquer laws. There is nothing in the traffic law that prohibits women from driving, yet they are not allowed to drive.”
The 2011 municipal elections will be the second in Saudi. Women were absent in the first round, held in 2005, and winners were mostly Islamists, especially in main cities. Municipal councils have no legislative power in Saudi and their role is basically consultative.
(Translated from the Arabic by Sonia Farid)
Women’s driving is an example of how traditions conquer laws. There is nothing in the traffic law that prohibits women from driving, yet they are not allowed to drive
Former editor-in-chief of al-Watan newspaperSuleiman al-Uqaili