Saudi Women To Receive Right To Vote — In 2015

Businesswoman Nadia Bakhurji has wanted to run for public office in her native Saudi Arabia since 2004, when the country announced it would hold its first municipal elections in 40 years. But she was forced to withdraw her name when the government banned women from running for office — or voting. Melissa Block speaks with Bakhurji for her reactions to the Saudi king's statements over the weekend, vowing to extend women's suffrage.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Over the weekend, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced that women will get the right to vote and to run in municipal elections, but not until 2015. And King Abdullah said women will be appointed to the Shura Council, which advises the monarchy. This in a country where women still don't have the right to drive.

We're going to hear reaction now from Nadia Bakhurji. She's an architect in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. In 2004, she was the first Saudi woman to register her candidacy for municipal elections. Her application was nullified by Saudi officials. I asked her for her first thoughts when she heard of the king's decree.

NADIA BAKHURJI: I was absolutely happy and overwhelmed. It was quite a surprise, but a very happy surprise, very welcomed one actually.

BLOCK: I wonder if you see an odd contradiction in the fact that women in Saudi Arabia have now been promised the right to vote, four years from now, but women there still don't have the right to drive. They still be the permission from a man to travel, or if they want to seek higher education. From the outside, it does seem like those are in opposition.

BAKHURJI: Yeah. Well, actually when the news hit yesterday and I was watching television, I saw the king's speech. I thought to myself, well, the fact that he's gone right to the top, he's bypassed, you know, women's driving and other issues like traveling, and he's gone right to the top and he said women can become Shura members and they can vote. And I thought, well, it's a very clear message what the king is saying to women, as well, not just to the men that we want the women to be proactive, to take responsibility for the decision-making process, which gives them these freedoms just like in every other country in the world.

It will also automatically open up a lot of other areas for us. Because if you think about it logically, how are you going to have council members at the Shura Council level if you're not going to let them drive? And that's why I believe that we need these women at municipal council levels. We need them at the Majlis-ash-Shura level. We need them in the ministries. We need to see women coming forward as ministers as well, and vice ministers to affect change. And it's a common knowledge that everywhere in the world, if a woman wants to change policy to her favor, she needs to navigate her way through the government processes.

BLOCK: It sounds like what you're saying is that you would expect other reforms to follow this one. You would soon, I wonder, expect women to have the right to drive in Saudi Arabia?

BAKHURJI: Oh, yeah. Yes, I would expect many reforms to follow this because this is the piece de resistance. And if the king could say that, then everybody under the king has to bow his head and say yes, the king is right. And therefore, women are equal to men. ,Therefore what follows after that? Women should be able to drive. Women should be able to travel. Women should be able to do a lot of things that are perhaps hindering them at the moment.

The driving issue, funny enough, you know what? I wish it was something we resolved years and years ago, because it seems so many other issues that are so important get overlooked - human rights, your right to have your children in a divorce. So many things, you know, that affect women's livelihood every day, their chance at employment, having out well first date.

If you're a divorcee or a widow and you don't have an income, what do you do? You need n income. You need to live. You need to have to have a house over your head. These are the important things, and these are the things that I care about. And these are the things I would fight for at Majlis-ash-Shura level.

BLOCK: Well, Nadia Bakhurji, thanks very much for talking with us today.

BAKHURJI: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Nadia Bakhurji is an architect in Riyadh. In 2004, she was the first Saudi woman to try to run in municipal elections. She says she now hopes to be appointed to the Shura Council. If that doesn't happen, she says, she will run in municipal elections in 2015.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

We've got more coming up on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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