When voter registration opened in August, few of Rana’s friends noticed, and the 25-year-old recent college graduate drew curious looks when she brought it up. None of them were planning to participate in Saudi Arabia’s Dec. 12 municipal elections — the first vote in which women will be allowed to stand as voters and candidates. “My friends know about the election, but they are not excited about it,” she recalled on an October afternoon from her office in a Jeddah PR company. “They didn’t register [to vote].” Rana had felt differently. Sure, it was a small step, and maybe little would come of it. But she was insistent. “We need women to get into this process,” she told her friends and family — and herself. “Women can do things for society.” But in Rana’s case, those things don’t include registering to vote. Rana ticked off the many obstacles she encountered. The window for registration was too brief, the documentation required too onerous, and her legal guardian — which all Saudi women require for even the most basic bureaucratic chores — wasn’t around to arrange her paperwork. And her family, inclined to think of politics as a man’s domain, discouraged her efforts.
Across Saudi Arabia, Rana’s experience was shared by countless peers. The election commission says that women make up about 22 percent of new voters for December’s municipal polls, or just over 100,000 people. Added to previously registered Saudis, that will make women about 6 percent of the 1.7 million person electorate.
Saudi policymakers and female activists alike touted the monarchy’s introduction of universal suffrage in municipal elections as a landmark in relaxing the country’s notoriously strict constraints on women. (Females in Saudi Arabia are treated as legal dependents from birth to death and can take few decisions — from travel to schooling — without a man’s consent.) But the disappointing registration numbers seem to tell another story. Some naysayers are already arguing that it proves women aren’t capable or interested in being involved in politics.