Big news out of Saudi Arabia, or so they would have you think. For the first time in forever, women were allowed to register to vote in the upcoming elections. Of course, there are a few caveats attached, one of which being that the total number of women registered in the first round was… two. But to be fair, that’s only because it was “early registration” which only took place in two cities. (Yahoo News)
For some, the process of registering to vote can be daunting, frustrating, and entirely forgettable. For Jamal al-Saadi, registering to vote for the first time was a dream come true. Saadi is one of two women who made history last week by registering to vote in Saudi Arabia, four years after the government granted women the right to participate in local elections, according to Al Jazeera.
Voter registration for December’s municipal elections officially began on Saturday, but opened a week early in Medina and Mecca, the Muslim holy cities where Saadi and her history-making counterpart Safinaz Abu Al-Shamat respectively reside.
It marks the first election since the late Saudi King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run for office in 2011.
There are more women lining up to register around the rest of the nation as we speak, so this is progress, right? While I suppose anything is better than nothing as a general rule, the consensus among observers is that this is little more than window dressing. As referenced in the linked report, human rights advocate Vanessa Tucker penned an op-ed calling it an advancement on paper only, saying that the idea of human rights advances in Saudi Arabia is “a myth.”
In support of that criticism we should remember a few details of the “opportunity” now presented to Saudi women. First of all, if they want to go register to vote they will still need to find a male relative or guardian to accompany them as they leave the house or they can be punished. They’re also going to need a lift to get to the registration office since they are still not allowed to drive. Upon arrival they will need to hope that there is a separate entrance at the facility for women as they are still not allowed to mix in public with men who are not relatives. They’ll also need to find a route for their driver which doesn’t come too close to a cemetery because they’re not allowed on the grounds of a burial site.
Assuming all of these barriers are overcome, what will the newly registered female voters be gaining? Well… not much. They can’t vote in any national or regional elections for major offices. They can only vote in local, municipal elections. And in many cases, these races are for offices which may, in some instances, be overridden if the higher ups don’t care for the results. In short, this isn’t exactly a shift in the balance of power.
There’s one other side note in this article which shows up nearly every time this comes up. It’s in reference to the 2011 decision of the late Saudi King to grant them this boon.
Up until then, Saudi Arabia was the only other country besides Vatican City that allowed men but not women to vote.
Feminists and their allies in the media love to point out the Vatican City rules in articles such as this as a sort of poke in the eye to the Catholic church. It is worth noting, however, that there are less than 500 actual citizens of Vatican City. It’s a “country” in the modern sense, but it’s much closer to the concept of a “City State” from the medieval era. The important thing to remember here is that there really aren’t any elections in Vatican City for people to vote in. Well, we should clarify here that they do have one election, but it only takes place when you need a new Pope. It’s also really more of a “selection” than an election, and only the Cardinals take part. Since only men can become Cardinals, women don’t vote. The rest of the positions in the city are appointed and, yes, some of them are held by women.
That’s a minor annoyance with this story, but it’s worth bringing up. We should really do away with this talking point of comparing Vatican City to Saudi Arabia.