In A Land Of Few Rights, Saudi Women Fight To Vote

May 4, 2011
Originally published on May 4, 2011 8:23 pm

It was pretty sobering to hear a group of Saudi women I met recently tell me they feel they have the least freedom or fewest rights of any women in the world.

They have no right to vote in the rare, countrywide elections Saudi officials hold or to drive on the kingdom's roads. They have little say in matters of marriage and divorce. They can't travel unless their male guardian — who could even be their child — gives them a letter granting them permission to do so.

Never mind the mandatory black robe and veil that they must put on whenever they leave the house.

So when the government recently decided to renege on a promise to grant them the vote in municipal elections this fall, the women told me they'd had enough.

They were among dozens of women across the country who decided to go to registration centers and demand voting cards. The ones I interviewed hatched their plan on Twitter.

There were 11 of them. They agreed to have me along as long as I blended in with the group. Even though I'm here on a journalist visa issued by the Saudi government, the women feared my presence would lead to their being dismissed by officials as immoral Saudis who were influenced by the West.

Nor did the women want to raise the ire of the religious police should they arrive on the scene.

So I agreed to become as invisible as they feel. I placed my tape recorder in an outside pocket of my purse and left it running. I put on an opaque black veil called a niqab that covers everything but my eyes. (I already wear the black robe, or abaya, which is required of female visitors to Saudi Arabia).

I followed the sea of black-clad women into a voting center inside a boys' elementary school in the capital, Riyadh.

The sleepy male officials were startled by our arrival. Not a single man was there to sign up for elections that have otherwise generated little interest in Saudi Arabia. But here was a group of women defying the government's decision to limit the vote to men only.

I was able to make out bits and pieces of the argument that ensued. The women pleaded: We have rights as Saudi citizens. All we are asking is to register. Think of your mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. One of the women used the camera on her phone to record part of the exchange.

But the men weren't moved. It's illegal, it's immoral, it's out of our hands, were the arguments they used. The head of the center spoke to the women condescendingly and finally left, making a call to what the women feared might be the religious police.

That prompted a couple of the women to leave in a hurry. But the other nine stood their ground, turning their attention to a second voting official who turned out to be the school principal.

The women later told me he was more understanding. But in the end, he wouldn't allow them to sign up or give them voter cards.

So far, Saudi journalists report only two women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to register, and that was in the city of Khobar. When other women went to that same center the following day, they were turned away.

The women I was with agreed to meet with me at a cafe a short drive away. They were all smiles.

Most said they would try again. "We just have to find someone who will let us do it — someone who, you know, sees his daughter in us or his wife, or believes in it," said 23-year-old Sara, a social media worker. (She, like many of the women in this report, asked their last names not be used to protect their families.)

Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, president of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, hopes the women will keep trying to claim the vote.

"They work for it, so I think they have the right to participate. But I really don't understand the government, the mentality of the government," he said. "I think the reason is that government is using it as quid pro quo toward extremists."

The people Qahtani is referring to are the hard-line Islamic fundamentalists in the kingdom, who, among other things, run the much feared religious police here and oppose giving women more rights.

What he's referring to is a widespread, but quietly held belief that King Abdullah is making concessions to these fundamentalists, who in turn keep Saudi citizens in check at a time when political dissent in the kingdom is growing.

The Saudi women in this story are not the first to make a public statement against discrimination in their country. In late 1990, a group of professors and other professionals defied the ban against females driving.

The drivers were arrested and later shunned by many of their students, friends and relatives. Leaflets with their names that described them as whores and their husbands as pimps circulated around the capital. They suffered reprisals at work and had their passports confiscated by the government.

At the coffee shop, many of the would-be voters say they thought of those women as they hatched their plan.

"They were braver and it gives a push on some level, but it's also disappointing on another because look at them now — what did they do? They changed nothing," said Rasha Al-Duwisi, who is 30 and a stay-at-home mother.

Still, Duwisi and the rest of these women say they are determined to press on.

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Saudi Arabia is preparing for rare nationwide elections in September. These polls are to elect men to serve on municipal councils, and only men will be allowed to vote.

Officials say there isn't enough time to lay the groundwork for women to cast ballots, let alone run for office, never mind that the elections are already two years overdue. But the ban hasn't stopped dozens of Saudi women from risking arrest to claim what they view as their right.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story from the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Ruba answers her cell phone in the back of her family's luxury sedan.

RUBA: Hello?

NELSON: The 21-year-old university student shifts uncomfortably in her shapeless black robe as she nervously chats with a female caller who is parked nearby. The robe is mandatory for any woman going out in public here and even more so given what these two are planning.

RUBA: (Speaking foreign language). I want to point out, let's dress piously, please. (Speaking foreign language). Let's dress piously.

NELSON: She takes a long black veil, wraps it snugly around her dark curls and disappears behind the part she drapes over her face. The place Ruba is adamant they cover up for is a recently opened voter registration center in downtown Riyadh.

She explains there is no point in fighting for equal rights under Saudi law if the male officials they meet inside are distracted by less-than-modest attire. Ruba and ten other shrouded women meet in front of the boys' elementary school that houses the registration center, then head inside.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Most of them don't know each other except through Twitter. Some, unlike Ruba, refuse to cover their faces. But all of them share a common goal: to sign up to vote. Dozens of women in several Saudi cities have tried to do the same thing since the registration centers opened last week.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: The male officials at this school are not amused. They alternate between politeness and condescension. The officials argue that women cannot register or vote; it's against the law. Soon, the elderly head of the center asks them to leave.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: The women resist. They argue that voting should be every Saudi citizen's right. It's a right that the government promised them after the last election. They say they should be allowed to sign up, even if they can't vote.

They mention a center in another city, Khobar, that did allow two women to register the day before. They plead: Think of your mothers, sisters and daughters. But the head of the center is unmoved. He picks up his cell phone and places a call as he walks away.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: His action sends a few girls hurrying out the door. They fear he is summoning the religious police to arrest or beat them. But the other women stop to talk with another male official who turns out to be the school principal.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: He is more sympathetic but tells the women it's out of his hands and that he can't sign them up. A short while later, the women give up and leave. They gather at a nearby coffee shop.

All of them are beaming even though they failed to get voter registration cards. They agree to be interviewed but most, like Ruba, ask that only their first names be used on air to protect their families.

Mesa is a 23-year-old banker. She says she was nervous and thrilled to openly fight discrimination for the first time in her life. Mesa says it doesn't matter that the effort was symbolic.

MESA: We're not voting for a huge change. I know this for a fact. But this is a small baby step, and we as women should be part of these baby steps because we are half of the population already.

NELSON: Nuha al Suleiman is a 28-year-old charity worker.

Ms. NUHA AL SULEIMAN: Actually I really wanted to write our names as requesting for the electing cards, but just going there and standing there and talking to those who are responsible that we want our rights, to raise our voices, actually this was a very, very huge success.

NELSON: By Saudi standards, it definitely is a rarity. The last time anyone here can remember women openly joining forces to overturn a law in Riyadh was two decades ago, when a group of professors and other professionals defied the ban against females driving.

The drivers were arrested and later shunned by many of their students, friends and relatives. Leaflets with their names that described them as whores and their husbands as pimps circulated around the capital. They suffered reprisals at work and had their passports confiscated by the government.

At the coffee shop, many of these would-be voters say they thought of those women as they hatched their plan. Rasha Al Duwisi, who is 30, is a stay-at-home mom.

Ms. RASHA AL DUWISI: They were braver, and it gives us a push on some level, but it's also disappointing on another because look at them now. What did they do? They changed nothing.

NELSON: A gloom settles over the table when the women are asked if they feel Saudi women are the most oppressed among all Arab women.

Unidentified Woman #1: Of course.

Unidentified Woman #2: Definitely.

Unidentified Woman #3: Not of Arab women, of women.

NELSON: The women say while educational and even job opportunities have improved, personal rights for Saudi women are nonexistent. Besides not being allowed to vote or drive, adult women can't travel without written permission from a male guardian, says Duwisi. That makes her feel like a perpetual child.

Ms. DUWISI: If you're 50, and you don't have parents anymore, then your child becomes your parent. Your male child becomes your guardian, which is silly.

NELSON: But the lack of rights makes Sara, a 23-year-old social media worker, much more determined to keep trying to register to vote.

SARA: We just have to find someone who will let us do it, someone who, you know, sees his daughter in us or his wife or believes in it.

NELSON: Mohammad Fahad al Qathani is one who hopes the women will keep trying. He is president of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.

Mr. MOHAMMAD FAHAD AL QATHANI (President, Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association): You know, they work for it. So I think they have the right to participate. But I, really I don't understand the government, the mentality of the government.

I think the reason is that government is using it as quid pro quo toward extremists.

NELSON: What Qathani is referring to are the hard-line Islamic fundamentalists in the kingdom who, among other things, run the much-feared religious police here and oppose giving women more rights.

Qathani says they and King Abdullah have an uneasy relationship, with the ruler increasingly making concessions to fundamentalists in hopes they'll keep Saudi citizens in check as political dissent in the kingdom grows.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Riyadh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.