Possibility of Women Voters in Groundbreaking Saudi Elections

Officials announced the new rules for Saudi Arabia’s first municipal elections yesterday, stating that all citizens above the age of 21, except for military personnel, would be eligible to vote. The BBC News reports that Saudi women’s rights activists hailed these new regulations, as they leave open the possibility for women to vote, a possibility that the press had seriously doubted.

While some outsiders were concerned that the wording of the regulations used only the masculine form when referring to the people eligible to vote, an expert in constitutional law explained otherwise to the Arab News. In fact, Abdul Aziz Al-Owaisheq related that the wording of the bylaw effectively leaves voting rights open to women, as the basic law in Saudi Arabia uses the masculine form when referring to citizens in general. Journalist Nahed Bashateh told The Gulf Daily News that “As the text was left unclear on the issue, it means that decision-makers decided not to exclude women.”

The BBC News reports that the decision to possibly allow women voters is in reaction to the pressure faced by the ruling Saudi family from the international community to introduce social, political and economic reforms in the oppressive and conservative country. The Gulf News reported that the government has recently opened up some avenues for women, such as allowing them to start businesses under their own name, instead of under the name of a male relation.

The BBC News’ regional Saudi analysts doubt that women will actually be able to cast their vote in the elections when voting starts in November, as the ruling family will likely choose to prevent a powerful backlash by the religious conservatives in the country.

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BBC News 8/10/04, Gulf Daily News 8/11/04, Arab News 8/10/04

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