MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Saudi Arabia is preparing for rare nationwide elections in September. These polls are to elect men to serve on municipal councils, and only men will be allowed to vote.
Officials say there isn't enough time to lay the groundwork for women to cast ballots, let alone run for office, never mind that the elections are already two years overdue. But the ban hasn't stopped dozens of Saudi women from risking arrest to claim what they view as their right.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story from the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Ruba answers her cell phone in the back of her family's luxury sedan.
NELSON: The 21-year-old university student shifts uncomfortably in her shapeless black robe as she nervously chats with a female caller who is parked nearby. The robe is mandatory for any woman going out in public here and even more so given what these two are planning.
RUBA: (Speaking foreign language). I want to point out, let's dress piously, please. (Speaking foreign language). Let's dress piously.
NELSON: She takes a long black veil, wraps it snugly around her dark curls and disappears behind the part she drapes over her face. The place Ruba is adamant they cover up for is a recently opened voter registration center in downtown Riyadh.
She explains there is no point in fighting for equal rights under Saudi law if the male officials they meet inside are distracted by less-than-modest attire. Ruba and ten other shrouded women meet in front of the boys' elementary school that houses the registration center, then head inside.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
Most of them don't know each other except through Twitter. Some, unlike Ruba, refuse to cover their faces. But all of them share a common goal: to sign up to vote. Dozens of women in several Saudi cities have tried to do the same thing since the registration centers opened last week.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).
NELSON: The male officials at this school are not amused. They alternate between politeness and condescension. The officials argue that women cannot register or vote; it's against the law. Soon, the elderly head of the center asks them to leave.
Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language).
NELSON: The women resist. They argue that voting should be every Saudi citizen's right. It's a right that the government promised them after the last election. They say they should be allowed to sign up, even if they can't vote.
They mention a center in another city, Khobar, that did allow two women to register the day before. They plead: Think of your mothers, sisters and daughters. But the head of the center is unmoved. He picks up his cell phone and places a call as he walks away.
Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language).
NELSON: His action sends a few girls hurrying out the door. They fear he is summoning the religious police to arrest or beat them. But the other women stop to talk with another male official who turns out to be the school principal.
Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language).
NELSON: He is more sympathetic but tells the women it's out of his hands and that he can't sign them up. A short while later, the women give up and leave. They gather at a nearby coffee shop.
All of them are beaming even though they failed to get voter registration cards. They agree to be interviewed but most, like Ruba, ask that only their first names be used on air to protect their families.
Mesa is a 23-year-old banker. She says she was nervous and thrilled to openly fight discrimination for the first time in her life. Mesa says it doesn't matter that the effort was symbolic.
MESA: We're not voting for a huge change. I know this for a fact. But this is a small baby step, and we as women should be part of these baby steps because we are half of the population already.
NELSON: Nuha al Suleiman is a 28-year-old charity worker.
Ms. NUHA AL SULEIMAN: Actually I really wanted to write our names as requesting for the electing cards, but just going there and standing there and talking to those who are responsible that we want our rights, to raise our voices, actually this was a very, very huge success.
NELSON: By Saudi standards, it definitely is a rarity. The last time anyone here can remember women openly joining forces to overturn a law in Riyadh was two decades ago, when 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 these would-be voters say they thought of those women as they hatched their plan. Rasha Al Duwisi, who is 30, is a stay-at-home mom.
Ms. RASHA AL DUWISI: They were braver, and it gives us a push on some level, but it's also disappointing on another because look at them now. What did they do? They changed nothing.
NELSON: A gloom settles over the table when the women are asked if they feel Saudi women are the most oppressed among all Arab women.
Unidentified Woman #1: Of course.
Unidentified Woman #2: Definitely.
Unidentified Woman #3: Not of Arab women, of women.
NELSON: The women say while educational and even job opportunities have improved, personal rights for Saudi women are nonexistent. Besides not being allowed to vote or drive, adult women can't travel without written permission from a male guardian, says Duwisi. That makes her feel like a perpetual child.
Ms. DUWISI: If you're 50, and you don't have parents anymore, then your child becomes your parent. Your male child becomes your guardian, which is silly.
NELSON: But the lack of rights makes Sara, a 23-year-old social media worker, much more determined to keep trying to register to vote.
SARA: 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.
NELSON: Mohammad Fahad al Qathani is one who hopes the women will keep trying. He is president of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.
Mr. MOHAMMAD FAHAD AL QATHANI (President, Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association): You know, they work for it. So I think they have the right to participate. But I, really I don't understand the government, the mentality of the government.
I think the reason is that government is using it as quid pro quo toward extremists.
NELSON: What Qathani 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.
Qathani says they and King Abdullah have an uneasy relationship, with the ruler increasingly making concessions to fundamentalists in hopes they'll keep Saudi citizens in check as political dissent in the kingdom grows.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Riyadh.