Despite initial excitement for what appeared to be a step forward for women's rights in Saudi Arabia, the registration of women to vote in upcoming elections for the first time ever has so far been slow in the conservative kingdom.
Local reporting indicates that just 16 women have registered to vote in three governorates since they were able to do so starting on August 22. The chairperson for the women's election circuit in the district of Al-Darb, Shaha Muhammad Asiri, said over the weekend that only five women registered in that district due to logistical difficulties and lack of awareness, according to the Saudi Gazette.
Registration for candidates began on Sunday, and it's possible that the low numbers are just a momentary speed bump. Fawziya Al-Hani, an activist who has helped promote the registration drive through a Facebook campaign called "Baladi" ("My Country"), told Arab News that as many as 80 women are expected to run in the country's various administrative provinces.
As more women register their candidacy as well as their ability to vote for themselves and others, they will hopefully lend increasing visibility to the cause of women's suffrage in Saudi Arabia while spurring supporters to get involved.
"Fighting an election requires courage because women will be exposed to the public, in addition to the risk of losing money in the elections if they lose," Al-Hani said. The Baladi initiative involves bringing in trainers from places like Jordan and Lebanon to assist female candidates and voters on how to manage campaigns.
Ali Alyami, the director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, told VICE News that he the initial low voter turnout was likely due to the fact that it is still relatively early in voter registration and that he expects to see greater numbers as the deadline gets closer and word spreads throughout the country.
Alyami pointed out that the registration and voting process is done in stages and once it gets outside of the major cities, where the few reported instances of female registration have taken place, more women are likely to sign up.
The late King Abdullah announced four years ago that women would be allowed to vote and run in the municipal elections slated to take place this December, a development that was applaudedby those advocating for improved women's rights in the country.
Women "are seeking any venue to exercise their rights, so I would expect at least 60 to 70 percent of Saudi women, especially the younger generation, will turn out to vote if they are allowed to," Ali Alyami, the Director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, told VICE News earlier this month.
The low turnout in female voter registration is unsurprising, said Adam Coogle, a Saudi Arabia researcher for Human Rights Watch, who pointed out that elections are essentially meaningless to Saudi citizens, either male or female. The average Saudi is probably unaware or does not care about the municipal councils, which are only responsible for local, small-scale administration. All of the real political decisions are made from the top of the hierarchy, for which there are no elections.
"I think the step that was taken to allow women to vote was symbolically important," Coogle told VICE News. Though he doesn't think it meaningfully changes the reality on the ground for Saudi women, Coogle agreed that it is too early to make a final judgment. "From piecemeal evidence it appears that the response is underwhelming, but I don't think we have a clear idea of what has gone on nationwide."
There are major logistical constraints that prevent women from participating in elections, signaling the deeper inequality that remains between men and women in the country. To register to vote, Saudis are required to provide a photo ID and proof of residency, but most Saudi women can't supply either of these. Legal housing documents are almost never in a women's name, and they are not permitted to obtain a driver's license. Saudi women can theoretically obtain personal ID cards on their own, but it is difficult to do so in reality without the approval of men.
These challenges illustrate how Saudi women are essentially kept under the control of men. Apart from cloaking themselves according to a strict dress code, they must be escorted by a male guardian called a "mahram" whenever the leave the house, and cannot get a passport or job without the permission of their husband or a male relative.
Coogle described the low voter turnout as "the nefarious effect of the male guardianship system itself." As long as Saudi women do not have control over their own movement, allowing them to vote in municipal elections is largely an empty gesture. If the country really wanted to establish substantive reforms, they would allow women to drive themselves to the polls, he noted.
"Generally speaking, if a male guardian does not want his female relative he is responsible for participating" in the election, Coogle said, "they're going to have a real hard time voting."
Nevertheless, advocates of democracy in Saudi Arabia caution that the significance of women asserting their right to vote in such a restrictive country should not be underestimated.
"The Saudi system, regardless of what they say, is very sensitive to global pressures," Alyami said. "It is the women who are actually leading the pack in terms of promoting reforms in the country… they are the most critical of the religious establishment and of their disenfranchisement."
There are a total of 1,263 polling stations across the country, 424 of which are segregated for women only. Voter registration lasts until September 14, while candidates have until September 17 to enroll themselves.
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928