By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
THE Saudi municipal elections of 2015 are just around the corner and women will finally be allowed to fully participate both as candidates and voters. Hopefully this will give a long-needed jolt to the whole process that admittedly has not caught the imagination of many people.
When I voted in the first municipal elections in 2005 I felt the excitement of participating in a historic event of the Kingdom. I registered and was given a voter’s ID card with my photo on it. I recall not liking many of the candidates, but felt it was my duty as a Saudi to participate and vote for the 50% of Jeddah’s municipal council that were being picked by male voters. The other 50% of all councils across the country were being appointed by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs.
Now, nine years later, women are about to be let into the whole process. The men we elected to the Jeddah municipal council were mostly preoccupied with urban improvement projects, such as the building of new roads, overpasses and underpasses that have made Jeddah’s traffic bearable once again. These projects take years to be planned and fully executed, so in voter terms they are not very sexy as the results take a while to be seen and felt. Hopefully the addition of women to the councils will bring new concerns to the table such as improving public spaces for children to play in, and transportation solutions for women who work.
The delay in allowing women to vote was blamed on logistical reasons, mainly where would polling centers be set up for women? There was a solution right under our noses for a long time: Girls’ schools and women’s colleges that can easily serve as polling centers for women across the country. Now news that female candidates won’t be allowed to use their photos in campaign materials is being raised as an issue that makes for an uneven playing field between male and female candidates. It is true that humans are extremely visual beings, so having an attractive face on your election posters can be a vote drawer. Perhaps men should also be banned from using their photos on election campaign material, that way voters can focus on matters of real substance such as a candidate’s platform and philosophy rather than on their looks.
But more importantly, there needs to be a public awareness campaign on the importance of participating in the municipal elections. I never heard any of my younger relatives speaking about them or the members that were elected. That is a shame. We are a young nation and in order to become more vibrant and meaningful we need to have public debates over local issues that these municipal councils address.
Hopefully the entry of women as candidates and voters will give a much needed booster shot to this whole process. Some have suggested that quotas be established for women on the councils in order to guarantee their minimum participation. Quotas are used extensively throughout the world to make sure women and ethnic minorities have seats in Parliaments. After the latest election at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in which none of the women candidates was elected to the board of directors, quotas might be a good and necessary thing after all.
The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.