Saudi women complain of restrictive electoral regulations

Saudi women complain of restrictive electoral regulations
Despite being able to run for municipal elections for the first time, women in Saudi Arabia say regulations set by the country's electoral commission are restrictive.
3 min read
02 December, 2015
Saudi women still face challenges despite being able to stand in elections [AFP]

The conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia has allowed women to stand in municipal elections for the first time in the country's history, with more than 900 women announcing their candidacy.

However, many candidates and observers have complained about the restrictive regulations imposed by the country's electoral commission, which they believe will hinder the chances of female candidates.

As campaigning kicked off on Sunday, a number of female candidates were barred from running - reportedly without being given an explanation. Human rights activist Nassima al-Sadah and driving activist Lujain Hathloul were understood to have both been struck from the list of candidates.

     Women face 'regulatory, social and personal challenges' in their first experience as electoral candidates

Both al-Sadah and Hathloul have said that they will appeal the suspension of their candidacy, while media sources reported that the decision against the two was due to them violating the electoral commission's rules by giving press interviews and publishing their pictures.

Gendered challenges

One female candidate told al-Araby al-Jadeed that women faced "regulatory, social and personal challenges" in their first experience as electoral candidates.

"The regulatory challenges are presented by the fact that the electoral commission does not provide information on voter demographic, which makes campaigning very difficult," said the candidate who wished to remain anonymous.

"Female candidates also face penalties if they mix with men, which means they cannot communicate with the largest voter population," added the candidate.

Women also face an uphill battle to convince a society that is not used to seeing women in public life of their competence, according to the candidate.

Candidates also have to overcome their own self-esteem issues that are the result of being told that they are not cut out for public life.

"This is a new experience and we hope the officials will amend and develop the regulations is a manner that would achieve equality between male and female candidates," said the electoral candidate.

'Nonsensical' restrictions

Women are taking part in the municipal elections for the first time after the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz issued a 2011 decree allowing women to take part in elections in accordance with "religious restrictions".

     How are voters supposed to know anything about the candidates - male or female - if they are only names without faces?
-Hala al-Dosari

The ban on publishing candidate pictures was one of the "religious restrictions" imposed on the participation of women in the election, according to electoral commission spokesman Jadiea al-Qahtani, which is why the commission rolled out the ban on all male and female candidates.

However, rights activist Hala al-Dosari believes the decision to ban candidate pictures is nonsensical.

"There is no regulation in the country that forbids women from showing their faces if they were wearing the religious hijab," said al-Dosari.

"Female members of the Shura Council in addition to women journalists and those who work in mixed environments all adhere to the hijab requirements, so why ban female candidates from publishing their pictures?

"This decision is nonsensical," added al-Dosari. "How are voters supposed to know anything about the candidates - male or female - if they are only names without faces?"

Al-Dosari also criticised the rules forbidding candidates from using SMS messages and instant messaging services in their campaigning, especially when these methods are allowed in Saudi chamber of commerce elections.