Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – For the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia, women can vote and be elected in the municipal elections of 12 December.
For experts, allowing women to vote and run for office represents a watershed for the country and is a sign of the growing importance of women in Saudi society and economy.
At a workshop in Riyadh, prospective candidates in local elections are learning about campaigning and fundraising.
“My message during my campaign is simple: change,” said Haifa Al-Hababi, 36, who is preparing to stand in the December election. “Change the system. Change is life. The government has given us this tool and I intend to use it.”
She is one of the 21 female candidates, all dressed in black cloaks, learning how to woo voters and manage campaigns and budgets in the first election that is open to women in the kingdom.
One of the most urgent changes she and the other female candidates want is to give women more room in Saudi society.
Saudi Arabia enforces a strict Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, which places many restrictions on women’s activities and social rights. For instance, women still cannot drive a car, leave home or the country without a male relative, or receive medical treatment without permission.
In 2011, the late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz gave women the right to elect their representatives and run for office (in future municipal elections in 2015). This came after a protest on social media asking for women the right to vote.
The king also authorised women to stay at hotels without a letter from a male guardian, making it easier for women to travel on business. He appointed the first female deputy minister, opened the first coeducational university and eliminated men from women’s underwear and perfume shops.
His successor, King Salman, who took over in January, has not rolled back the changes.
As a result, female workers are entering the labour force in record numbers, a surge of 48 per cent since 2010, last year’s official labour report showed.
“It’s job creation within the national population and there’s a great multiplier effect in the economy,” said Monica Malik, chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates. “To have around 50 percent of your possible workforce not being utilized is a burden.”
Though more women are working, they still only make up 16 per cent of Saudis with jobs and account for 60 percent of the unemployed, according to the labour report.
With living and housing costs rising and the oil price below US$ 50, there is less wealth to spread around given the tripling of the population since the 1970s oil boom.
The bottom line is a woman’s place can no longer be at home if men want to maintain the living standards to which they are accustomed.
“It’s getting to the point where they (families) need two incomes if they want to live in a certain way,” said Stefanie Hausheer Ali, associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington.
Foziah Abu Khalid, a political sociology professor who helped organise the workshop, said she hoped women’s participation in the vote will mean the voice of all Saudi citizens, not just half of the population, will be heard.
“Entering municipal councils is not our ultimate goal,” said Abu Khalid. “We are aspiring that it would be the first step toward a political partnership between society and the state.”