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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - April 29, 2011

by Abeer Allam

A woman has filed the first ever legal challenge to Saudi Arabia’s prohibition on women voting in the kingdom.

Samar Badawi filed a claim to the Board of Grievances in Jeddah on Wednesday after her attempt to register to vote in long-delayed municipal polls scheduled for September was rejected.

The court is expected to rule next week on whether to accept the claim.

From the holy cities of Mecca and Medina through Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, several activists have tried to register to vote over the past few days, asserting that no official law prohibits them from voting. However, all attempts to register have been rejected.

”Prisoners can vote here but not women,” Ms Badawi told the Financial Times. “Even if we do not win the case, I hope we will show Saudi women that they have legal ways to challenge the rules, rather than just sitting at home and lamenting their condition.”

Municipal elections scheduled for 2009 have been delayed for two years “to expand participation of citizens in management of local affairs”, an official statement said at the time. Some analysts interpreted this as suggesting women might be permitted to vote.

However, election officials last month said that while there were no laws against women voting, logistical challenges amid strict rules on gender separation, including female supervision of the voting facilities, could not be overcome in time.

This is consistent with the position of officials on other issues. For example, no law prohibits women from driving but conservative traditions and bureaucracy have made it impossible.

“The majority of people here are very conservative, including women,” said a Saudi expert close to the government. “Conservative women send petitions against allowing women more rights which they deem as contrary to what they see as sacred traditions and values, while those in favour of women’s rights do very little in comparison.”

Saudi women’s activists complain that theirs is a lonely struggle, with harsh criticism from women as well as men. Women who push for basic rights are accused of being westernised or misguided.

Most women who tried to register to vote were politely rebuffed, but in Dammam three were arrested by the religious police and had defaced versions of their pictures put in online newspapers.

Nouf Abdelaziz, an activist who covers her face in public, received emails and comments on her Twitter account from men telling her to stay at home or saying her action was “evidence you are a loose woman” after she discussed her experience trying to register in Al-Khobar, the headquarters of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company.

“We have to break the barrier of fear,” said Ms Abdelaziz. “We do not care about the municipal elections so much as showing other women and the government that we are not silent. That it is not enough to blog about their misery, but to act.”

Women in Saudi Arabia cannot travel, take a job or perform basic economic or legal operations without the approval of a male guardian, typically a close blood relative or husband.

While Islam grants women legal and financial independence, Saudi officials acknowledge that rules imposed on women reflect local tradition not religion.

Religious authorities in Saudi Arabia says women are “equal to men, subject to their different nature”, but the precise meaning of this term is developed by practices and customs in the strict conservative environment.

The oil-rich kingdom ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 2000, but said Islamic law would take precedence in the event of any contradiction. It did not express any reservation with respect to women’s participation in political affairs, according to the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, and this forms the basis of Ms Badawi’s case.

“They should at least respect international agreement they signed, but they are actually afraid we will ask to lift the guardianship system next,” said Ms Badawi, who was previously imprisoned without trial when she filed a claim to challenge her father’s guardianship. “They are afraid that if they allow women into public life, we will have ministers and officials who will reveal just how inefficient men have been.”

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