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Saudi women to get right to vote

Reuters, AFP / 26 September 2011

Saudi Arabia will allow women to stand for election and vote, the king announced on Sunday, in a significant policy shift in the country.

The Custodian of the Two Holy Shrines, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, said he was giving women the right to vote and run in municipal elections, the only public polls in the Gulf kingdom.

He also announced that women would have the right to join the all-appointed Shura (consultative) Council, in an address opening a new term of the council.

“Starting with the next term, women will have the right to run in municipal elections and to choose candidates, according to Islamic principles,” he said.

This means that women will be able to take part in the elections that will be held in four years, as the next vote is due to take place on Thursday and nominations for those are already in.

“We have decided that women will participate in the Shura Council as members starting the next term,” the king said in an unexpected move to enfranchise women in the kingdom.

“The Muslim woman... must not be marginalised in opinion or advice,” said King Abdullah.

“This is great news,” said Wajeha Al Huwaider, a Saudi writer and women’s rights activist. “Women’s voices will finally be heard. Now it is time to remove other barriers like not allowing women to drive cars and not being able to function, to live a normal life without male guardians.”

More than 5,000 men will compete in Thursday’s municipal elections, only the second in Saudi Arabia’s history, to fill half the seats in the kingdom’s 285 municipal councils. The other half are appointed by the government. The first elections were held in 2005, but the government extended the existing councils’ term for two years.

More than 60 intellectuals and activists called in May for a boycott of the ballot because “municipal councils lack the authority to effectively carry out their role” and “half of their members are appointed”, as well as because they exclude women.

In April, Samar Badawi, a women’s rights activist, said she was suing the Municipal Affairs Ministry for upholding the ban on women taking part in the local poll.

Badawi filed a lawsuit at the administrative court in the holy city of Makkah against the ministry for denying women the right to register as voters.

Also in April, a group of women defied the ban on women in elections by turning up at a voter registration office in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, in a rare public demonstration against the male-only electoral system.

But they were turned back by the head of the centre who told them women were still banned from voting.

Women’s rights activists have long fought to gain the right to vote in the kingdom.

Meanwhile, the White House welcomed Saudi Arabia’s move on Sunday allowing women to vote and to run for municipal office, hailing it as an “important step forward” in women’s rights in the kingdom.

“We welcome Saudi King Abdullah’s announcement today that women will serve as full members of the Shura Council in the next session, and will have the right to participate in future municipal elections, White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.

“These reforms recognise the significant contributions women in Saudi Arabia make to their society and will offer them new ways to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and communities,” said Vietor.

“The announcements made today represent an important step forward in expanding the rights of women in Saudi Arabia, and we support King Abdullah and the people of Saudi Arabia as they undertake these and other reforms.”


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