A woman runs for office in Saudi Arabia

In the first elections in 40 years, one woman jumps in. But can women even vote?

When the Saudi government announced last month the particulars of municipal elections to be held here for the first time in 40 years, Nadia Bakhurji was thrilled that her country was taking a baby step toward democracy.

But an air of ambiguity still hangs over the announcement: Will women be allowed to vote?

Last week, the 37-year-old architect and mother of two made a bid to clear the air with a daring step of her own: She declared herself a candidate for elected office - the first woman in Saudi history to do so.

"I wish there were more [women] so it wouldn't seem so abnormal," she says, admittedly nervous about her gambit. "I'm a patriotic woman who just wants to serve my community and my country."

Ms. Bakhurji's candidacy is part of a campaign by women who make up Saudi Arabia's embryonic suffrage movement. The elections next spring, for half the seats in 178 municipal councils, are part of the government's efforts to introduce political reforms in the kingdom, an absolute monarchy ruled by the Al Saud family. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Saudi Arabia has been under intense pressure from the United States to democratize, to provide a nonviolent outlet for political dissent.

During the past year, pressure for reform has increased from within, after a series of car bombings and shootouts with al-Qaeda-linked militants trying to drive foreigners out of the country.

As part of its reform efforts, the Saudi government in recent months has allowed women to participate in a series of forums, set up by Crown Prince Abdullah, to discuss challenges facing the country. Women have also recently been appointed to the executive committees of several government-controlled entities, including the Journalists' Syndicate and the National Human Rights Commission. In June, the Council of Ministers, the highest decision-making body, issued a plan to create jobs for women, including the setting up of women-only factories.

Many Saudi women consider these major steps in a country where women are not allowed to drive, travel without permission from a male guardian, appear in public without being covered, nor work alongside men.

The suffrage campaign took off last month when municipal bylaws issued did not explicitly ban women from participating in the elections.

But in an interview on state television the following week, a deputy-minister at the Municipal and Rural Affairs Ministry, Mohammad al-Nagady, said women would not participate in this year's elections.

This prompted a string of phone calls to Mr. Nagady from the Saudi media (and the Monitor) for confirmation. But he has not returned calls. Other ministry officials have commented, or issued statements, about the elections in general, but have not answered whether women will be allowed to vote.

The ambiguity is intentional, say some analysts.

"The government has not clarified its position because it's adopting a wait-and-see attitude," says former judge Abdul-Aziz al-Qassim. "It wants to see whether there's support for the idea [of women voting] or a strong backlash," says Mr. Qassim, who will be a keynote speaker at a conference later this month on the elections. The Saudi Administration University is sponsoring the event.

Proponents of women's rights see the silence as a positive sign. "If the officials are refusing to comment it means it's not a definitive no. There's a good chance it's a yes," says Hatoon al-Fassi, an associate professor of history at King Saud University.

Despite full-time jobs and children, Riyadh residents Ms. Fassi and Hanan al-Ahmadi, an associate professor of health administration, are now spending several hours a day in suffrage meetings, brainstorming, photocopying, and distributing the almost daily articles appearing in the press on the issue - including several by Fassi, who is also a columnist. They call up those who have written positively about women voting to thank and encourage them. Writers who speculate that women will not be allowed to vote get a dressing down.

"We tell them, if you have something positive to say, say it. If not please keep quiet. It's not a done deal yet. I try to impose my optimism," says Fassi.

The women are also learning that some of their biggest opponents are other women - as well as complacency and ignorance. When Fassi recently handed out articles about getting the right to vote, some women didn't read them - they folded them into fans. "Saudi women have been passive for decades. It's difficult getting them interested in public life," says Ms. Ahmadi.

The two women are also learning one of the fundamentals of any democratic political campaign: how to relate to voters' needs.

"We started explaining that women are the ones who call the municipality when there's no water. Their kids are playing in the streets when there's roadwork or potholes.It's the muni- cipality that deals with the water that comes out of their tap, sewage disposal, and the cement left over in the streets that give their children allergies. When we bring the issues closer to home like that, the idea of municipal elections becomes something they can relate to," says Fassi.

What does Islam teach?

For Suhayla Zein el-Abidine, a women's rights activist in the city of Medina, the crux of the matter is explaining to the Saudi public that Islam has not banned women from public life. In her writings, Ms. Zein el-Abidine, an executive member of the National Human Rights Commission, gives examples from Saudi history.

In the beginnings of the Islamic state, Asmaa bin Nukhayil al-Asadiya was appointed to take care of the operation of the market in Mecca, and was the equivalent of a Municipal Affairs Minister, recounts Zein el-Abidine. "She wore her hijab (head scarf) and carried a stick, and hit traders who cheated and were disorderly in the market," she says. "Islam gave women the right to participate in public duties and the state cannot deny them that right."

Though Zein el-Abidine says the country might not yet be ready to vote women into office, she expects to see them on the municipal councils nonetheless. Just as "the government appointed us in the National Human Rights Commission and appointed women to take part in the series of national dialogues, they should also appoint women in at least a quarter of the seats," she says.

Though most of the Islamic hardliners have remained mum on the issue of women's participation, some analysts say they would speak out against it if the government were to publicly announce women's participation.

Sulaiman al-Kharashi, an Islamic researcher known for his conservative views, disagrees. He says he's not against women voting because Islam granted women the right to have a say in their affairs. "There is no problem with women voting, which is giving their opinion in matters related to them," he says. But he objects to them running for office. A woman's "standing is more exalted than to be exposed to the abuse and mixing between the genders that will no doubt be part of the election process," he says.

Bakhurji says she's ready to deal with such "abuse" if her candidacy is officially allowed. She sees running as a public duty. "Women look at their community from a mother's point of view. They are interested in bettering their environment, creating public libraries, playgrounds, literary clubs, beautifying their communities and keeping them safe," she says. In fact, says the mother of a two-month-old and an 18-year old, should women be given the green light to vote - and to run - those will be her campaign issues.

Educated in England until high school, Bakhurji got her Bachelor's degree in interior design in Saudi Arabia. She was encouraged to run for office by her suffragette peers because of her professional experience in managing her own firm and staff for the past 10 years.

Not a radical

She's aware that her actions risk being called "un-Islamic." Before making a decision, "I asked myself if I was doing anything against my religion and the answer was, 'no.' If you put God in the formula, everything falls into place. This country has given me my education and I wanted to give something back."

Bakhurji doesn't consider herself a radical. If the Saudi government doesn't grant women the right to vote, she'll drop her candidacy. For now, she's hoping other women join her. "They're probably waiting to see what the reaction to me will be," she says.

Voting will begin in February. But a key date in December, when the government publishes the voter registration lists. Saudi Arabia's suffrage campaigners are working to ensure that the lists include women's names.

"We're not fighting against the current.... We finally have the opportunity to influence events," says newspaper editor and columnist Abeer Mishkhas. "We have to keep writing about it and talking about it. If the opportunity is lost, we only have ourselves to blame."

Where women can't vote

• Bhutan - In 2003, each family got one vote in village elections. No elections held yet.

• Brunei - no right to vote for men or women.

• Kuwait - only men who have been naturalized for 30 years or more, or have resided in Kuwait since before 1920 and their male descendants at age 21

• Lebanon - women can vote at age 21 only if they have an elementary school education.

• Saudi Arabia - men will vote in municipal elections next year for the first time since 1962. It's not clear yet if women will also get to vote.

• United Arab Emirates - no right to vote for men or women.

Source: CIA World Factbook 2004

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