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

A Saudi woman crosses in front of several automobiles in a marketplace on Sept. 16, 1990, in Dammam. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, have little say in matters of marriage and divorce, and cannot travel without a letter of permission from their male guardian.

A Saudi woman crosses in front of several automobiles in a marketplace on Sept. 16, 1990, in Dammam. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, have little say in matters of marriage and divorce, and cannot travel without a letter of permission from their male guardian. David Longstreath/AP hide caption

itoggle caption David Longstreath/AP

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.

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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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