Women have registered as candidates for the first time in Saudi Arabia. The inclusion of women in municipal polls, both as voters and as candidates, has launched a heated debate in the ultraconservative Gulf state.
When candidate registration for upcoming local elections in Saudi Arabia opened on Sunday, women signed up as political contenders for the first time. This is the latest in a series of changes for women in the Muslim kingdom, where they face heavy restrictions that include a driving ban. In spite of recent progress, many in the country oppose the latest measures to involve women in politics.
Cleric Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak said last week that women's involvement in the elected city councils represented an unlawful "mixing" of men and women and warned that it could lead to "Westernization." In a recent religious opinion, or fatwa, he warned women "not to be a key to corruption in the country."
The country strictly adheres to a puritanical school of Islam that calls for segregation of the sexes and for women to be completely covered. Women must obtain permission from male guardians to work, apply for a passport, or travel.
Numerous additional fatwas circulated online via social media sites that warned women's votes as council members could be exploited by male family members or fellow tribesmen.
Despite criticism, women's interest in politics has not lessened. Earlier this month, women began registering to vote for the first time at centers operated by all-female staff. Furthermore, the Saudi-funded newspaper "Al-Hayat" wrote that around 200 women had expressed interest in running as candidates in the upcoming elections.
Male and female voters in Saudi Arabia will be able to elect two-thirds of municipal council members this year, an increase from the 2011 elections, where voters only elected half of the members. According to local elections committee spokesman Jadee al-Qahtani, the councils will be given financial and administrative independence in order to "encourage participation of citizens in decision-making on matters that affect their daily lives."
The controversial move to include women in the political process this year is thanks to a decree from the late King Abdullah in 2011. In the decree, he granted women the right to vote and run in this year's elections, adding: "We refuse to marginalize women's role in Saudi society."
rs/sgb (AFP, dpa)