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Turnout for Saudi women registering to vote for first time very low

Low number of female voter registration attributed to lack of awareness for the local municipal elections
Saudi women wait for their drivers outside a shopping mall in Riyadh on 26 September 2011 a day after the late king Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections (AFP)

Women can vote in Saudi Arabia but very few are registering to take part in the munical elections, local media reported on Sunday.

The late King Abdullah, who passed away in January 2015, granted women the right to vote and run as candidates in this year’s local elections back in 2011. While he was still crown prince, he had introduced municipal elections in 2005.

“We refuse to marginalize women’s role in Saudi society,” he said at the time.

However, Al Arabiya reported on Sunday that only 16 women have registered in the municipal elections, in the governates of Farasan Island, al-Darb, and Dhamad in the Jazan region.

Candidate registration is to run until 17 September, while voter registration ends on 14 September.

The ultra-conservative kingdom, which follows the ultra-conservative Wahhabist ideology, has set up registration centers operated by a female-only staff. Voter registration began on 22 August, while candidate registration began on the 30th of the same month.

Out of the 1,263 polling stations in 284 municipalities across the monarchy, 424 have been reserved for women voters. The last time municipal elections were held was in 2011.

Municipal councils are to be granted financial and administrative independence to encourage “participation of citizens in decision-making on matters that affect their daily lives,” said Jadee al-Qahtani, the local elections committee spokesperson.

Saudi newspaper al-Hayat said earlier this month that around 200 women had expressed interest in running as candidates in the 12 December vote.

“I’m very excited to take part in this new experience,” said Amal Mohammed, a 35 year old woman as she registered to vote in the port city of Jeddah.

The government decides on the appointment of one-third of municipal council members.

The chairperson of the women’s election circuit in al-Darb said that the low number of registrants was due to difficult conditions and lack of awareness among women regarding the elections.

Only five women registered to vote in the past few days, Shaha Muhammad Asiri said.

Al Arabiya reported that in Farasan Island, females registered only six voters. In the Dhamad governate, the number was at four.

Women in Saudi Arabia face many restrictions, such as being banned from driving, having to be covered from head to toe, and needing the permission of their male family members or “guardians” in order to apply for a job, passport, or travel. The kingdom also employs a strict segregation of the sexes policy.

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