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Saudi Women Will Not Vote or Run in Municipal Elections - 2004-10-12

This coming February, Saudi Arabia is set to hold nationwide local elections. The vote will be Saudi Arabia's first in decades. But the Interior Minister has said Saudi women are not likely to vote or run in the municipal council elections. The government appears to be bowing to conservative and religious leaders who oppose a public role for women and fear the royal kingdom is modernizing too fast. Correspondent Laurie Kassman takes a look at the changing role of Saudi women.

The decision to keep women out of the electoral process has upset the five women planning to run for office, especially 37-year-old architect Nadia Burkhaji. She was the first to announce her intention to run in the municipal council election.

"Frankly it would be really positive of them to put forward what the problems are, what the hurdles are, work with us hand in hand to solve these problems because it doesn't seem to be that there is anything that is insurmountable in the time frame we have," she said. " We have until February."

Some officials suggest there is not enough time to organize and staff separate voting stations for women in accordance with religious and social traditions that separate men and women in public functions. Many women do not have identity cards that would be required to register to vote because they would have to reveal their usually veiled face in the photo. Miss Burkhaji says no hurdle is insurmountable.

"One of the solutions we have put forward is that since 50 percent of the seats on the councils are going to be appointed, they could actually allocate a percentage of those seats to ladies, bypassing the election process and brining women in a very smooth manner onto the council because it's important to have their representation."

The role of women in politics in Saudi Arabia is more complicated than logistics. The deeply conservative society has usually preferred its women at home and out of sight.

Women were granted the right to education only about 40 years ago. Today, women account for more than half the students enrolled in colleges and universities. But, they represent less than five percent of the workforce. They cannot leave home without covering themselves or travel outside the country without permission from a male in the family. They cannot drive their own cars. They must remain separated from males in school and the workplace.

Now, as the country pursues political and economic reforms more Saudi women are demanding their rights too. Political analysts point out there is nothing in the Islamic religion banning or restricting women from a public role.

But Arab News columnist Abeer Meshkhas says it runs counter to deeply ingrained social traditions.

"We do have a very conservative segment of society who don't like women to be out there but as far as I can see I think lots of women are pushing for it," said Ms. Meshkhas.

Ms. Meshkas sees it as a matter of educating women about their rights. Voting in municipal elections is one of them.

"To them it makes sense," she said. "They say we are the ones in the house and we are the ones who deal with the municipality all the time. So it would make sense we women should have a say in that as well. "

Ms. Meshkhas dismisses suggestions that Saudi Arabia deal with political reforms one step at a time and leave the role of women for later.

"They might as well try and do it because if you postpone women you're not going to make it easier for them. Even for the difficulties, it's good to see now what difficulties you would face if you have women inside and try to solve them. Why postpone all the problems for later on," said Ms. Meshkhas.

For now, the government appears to be opting for a more conservative approach.