Women in Saudi Arabia have cast their vote for the first time in history last Saturday, December 12. Women’s suffrage has been received as a milestone in the politics of the country by the international community. The election of municipal councils have elected 20 female candidates, as reported by The Associated Press. According to the official data, around 131,000 women registered to vote, in contrast with the 1.35 million men. Therefore roughly 1.5 million people voted from a population of 20 million Saudis with the possibility to exercise their ballot. 2,100 seats of 284 local councils were in dispute with nearly 6000 men and almost 1000 women as candidates. Municipal councils are the second level of local government after the city council. The political structure of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, and since 2005 municipal elections have been held in The Kingdom. The 2015 elections were established to vote for two thirds of the council seats (one third are directly designated by the King). Municipal councils are arguably considered powerless in a political sense, as only local issues are at play. Those councils encompass the management of minor tasks as responsibility for streets, public gardens, or rubbish collection.
Mona Abu Suliman, a media personality and consultant in Riyadh, said to Aljazeera that “recognising women’s votes in decision-making is a step towards equality,” and that “even if women don’t win, just going through this process is important.” Human rights campaigners have also welcomed women participation, and some international media organisations have seen the elections as an important step in modernising the regime. Despite the fact that Saudis hold municipal elections, national elections are nonexistent. It is also critical to mention that Saudi Arabia was the only state that did not give women the right to vote. In addition, political parties are not allowed and strict laws on campaigning are applied. For instance the total segregation by gender have not made possible for candidates to use photographs in the campaign or give speeches to citizens of different sex. Wide spread optimism regarding municipal elections elections have brought to many headlines, the word “historic.” Western media and societies appear to look at these decisions as a step forward in gender equality and human rights. This approach seems reasonable from the experience and historical development of western societies. Withal, taking into account the wide differences in social structure, international context, or historical period, is this standardized approach valid for Saudi Arabia?
Praising womens’ votes in municipal elections may hide the routines of a normal day for a Saudi woman. A closer look into the female right to vote shows a distant reality from human right standards or gender equality. Women cannot have remunerated jobs, enrol in higher education, or marry without the authorization of the male tutor. Banned from driving or interacting with men, women are not allowed to wear clothes or use make-up that “shows off their beauty.” Saudi women are prevented to go anywhere without a man as a moral guardian, and are also excluded from participating freely in sports and other outlaw activities, as for instance to try on clothes when shopping. The consideration that such practices make women vulnerable to sin is unacceptable. The international community should not be comforted with the female right to vote, but with actions that effectively bring women the set of measures that allow them to develop as equal citizens in practice.
Western societies usually ponder as a requisite for achieving equality, the democratization of the institutions ruling a country. History shows that many democratic structures banned female voting until not too long ago. It is also important to remind people that many democratic states are still far from being egalitarian societies regarding gender or ethnicity. The struggle for womens’ rights is still an ongoing process and every step should be celebrated, however a vote may be useless when an ordinary Saudi woman cannot go freely without a man or drive a car to cast a vote. A bottom-up approach is essential in any process of empowerment. In the case of gender equality, the first elements to tackle are those discriminatory habits that Saudi women suffer on a daily basis and systematically. It may be an insightful exercise, to not always link feeble democratic actions with the conditions or set of measures deemed to comply with human rights.
Conflicting with the record of Saudi Arabia regarding human rights, last June the UN designated the Saudi Arabia’s ambassador at the UN in Geneva, Faisal bin Hassan Trad, as chair of a panel of independent experts on the UN Human Rights Council. It seems incongruous to appoint officials, from countries that systematically violate human rights, for UN positions set to raise awareness over the issue. The international community should not put economic or political interests before the will to deliver the standards of human behaviour that comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Although the right to vote for women is positive, it is important to not forget the objective of article 1 of the UDHR “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Thus, human rights are non negotiable or half accomplished. In the case of Saudi Arabia, female voting resembles a public relations action, more than a truly moving or symbolic element towards genuine gender equality.