Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Woman Runs for Office in Saudi Arabia ; in the First Elections in 40 Years, One Woman Jumps in. but Can Women Even Vote?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Woman Runs for Office in Saudi Arabia ; in the First Elections in 40 Years, One Woman Jumps in. but Can Women Even Vote?

Article excerpt

When the Saudi government announced last month the particulars of municipal elections to be held here for the first time in 40 years, Nadia Bakhurji was thrilled that her country was taking a baby step toward democracy.

But an air of ambiguity still hangs over the announcement: Will women be allowed to vote?

Last week, the 37-year-old architect and mother of two made a bid to clear the air with a daring step of her own: She declared herself a candidate for elected office - the first woman in Saudi history to do so.

"I wish there were more [women] so it wouldn't seem so abnormal," she says, admittedly nervous about her gambit. "I'm a patriotic woman who just wants to serve my community and my country."

Ms. Bakhurji's candidacy is part of a campaign by women who make up Saudi Arabia's embryonic suffrage movement. The elections next spring, for half the seats in 178 municipal councils, are part of the government's efforts to introduce political reforms in the kingdom, an absolute monarchy ruled by the Al Saud family. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Saudi Arabia has been under intense pressure from the United States to democratize, to provide a nonviolent outlet for political dissent.

During the past year, pressure for reform has increased from within, after a series of car bombings and shootouts with al-Qaeda- linked militants trying to drive foreigners out of the country.

As part of its reform efforts, the Saudi government in recent months has allowed women to participate in a series of forums, set up by Crown Prince Abdullah, to discuss challenges facing the country. Women have also recently been appointed to the executive committees of several government-controlled entities, including the Journalists' Syndicate and the National Human Rights Commission. In June, the Council of Ministers, the highest decision-making body, issued a plan to create jobs for women, including the setting up of women-only factories.

Many Saudi women consider these major steps in a country where women are not allowed to drive, travel without permission from a male guardian, appear in public without being covered, nor work alongside men.

The suffrage campaign took off last month when municipal bylaws issued did not explicitly ban women from participating in the elections.

But in an interview on state television the following week, a deputy-minister at the Municipal and Rural Affairs Ministry, Mohammad al-Nagady, said women would not participate in this year's elections.

This prompted a string of phone calls to Mr. Nagady from the Saudi media (and the Monitor) for confirmation. But he has not returned calls. Other ministry officials have commented, or issued statements, about the elections in general, but have not answered whether women will be allowed to vote.

The ambiguity is intentional, say some analysts.

"The government has not clarified its position because it's adopting a wait-and-see attitude," says former judge Abdul-Aziz al- Qassim. "It wants to see whether there's support for the idea [of women voting] or a strong backlash," says Mr. Qassim, who will be a keynote speaker at a conference later this month on the elections. The Saudi Administration University is sponsoring the event.

Proponents of women's rights see the silence as a positive sign. "If the officials are refusing to comment it means it's not a definitive no. There's a good chance it's a yes," says Hatoon al- Fassi, an associate professor of history at King Saud University.

Despite full-time jobs and children, Riyadh residents Ms. Fassi and Hanan al-Ahmadi, an associate professor of health administration, are now spending several hours a day in suffrage meetings, brainstorming, photocopying, and distributing the almost daily articles appearing in the press on the issue - including several by Fassi, who is also a columnist. They call up those who have written positively about women voting to thank and encourage them. …

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