05/31/2011, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi women protest for right to vote

Every day dozens of Saudi women descend on election offices to apply to be registered to participate in elections in September. Administrative consultations are convened for the second time in 40 years. Women may not be candidates, nor vote, because, the officials say it would be too difficult to arrange polling stations divided by gender.

Riyadh (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Municipal elections will be held at a national level in Saudi Arabia in September, the second time in 40 years. But to date nine million women will be excluded. The elections for municipal councils highlight the contradictions in the kingdom run by the Wahhabi monarchy, where a particularly austere religious system makes democracy very uncertain in its expressions. The kingdom does not allow for political parties, or have an elected parliament. And the religious police patrol the streets to ensure the protection of morals, and segregation between the sexes.

Already in March the government announced elections for half of the municipal seats, but women can not be nominated, or vote. The reason given by local officials is the difficulty of organizing separate polling stations on the basis of sex.

This decision has given rise to a campaign, started on Facebook and Twitter, by many Saudi women, and entitled "Baladi", "My Country". It calls for women to present themselves at polling stations, across Saudi Arabia, to ask to exercise their right to vote. Campaign posters usually only encourage men to sign up to vote. "Be a part in decision-making”, reads one such poster.

But in many parts of the kingdom women have answered the call. From the western provinces, Jeddah, Mecca and Medina, to the eastern provinces and even to the capital Riyadh, dozens of women have travelled to election offices, to be registered. "Through this pressure we are trying to change the government's decision to exclude women from voting, arguing that the reason they gave is not convincing – says Nailah Attar, one of the campaign organizers -. We will keep on trying until they stop us. " The organizations intend to push the issue of participation until 28 July, the closing date for registration.

For many, the attempt to participate in the voting is a beginning in eroding the “protection" system imposed on women which requires them to provide written permission from their father, brother or husband to travel, work, or undergo some surgical operations. The paradox is that while many women struggle to participate, an increasing number of males seem to want to boycott the elections, because the municipal councils will have no real authority or influence in decision-making. Their role is limited to present suggestions to the central authority.

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