- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2004

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Women are preparing to run in Saudi Arabia’s first democratic elections next year — but it is far from certain whether they will even be allowed to vote, let alone seek elected office.

The elections for members of 178 municipal councils will be held in three phases, starting Feb. 10 in the Riyadh region and ending April 21 in the Western Province, where Mecca, Jidda and Medina are located.

“I’m a patriot. I consider it my duty to run,” said Faten Bundagji, one of the first Saudi women to declare her candidacy. “I want every woman to be excited about the elections.”

The director of women’s empowerment and research at the Jidda Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Miss Bundagji said she doesn’t want to sound like a revolutionary.

“I respect authority and the structure of governance. I believe that the government supports us 100 percent. But if they don’t give us the green light to participate in the elections this time, I will be quiet,” she said.

Although the Saudi government last year announced its plan to hold municipal elections and released the actual election timetable a few months ago, it has thus far refused to specify whether Saudi women will be able to participate.

With only half of the members of the 178 municipal councils to be directly elected, and the other half appointed by the government, many have questioned the power and effectiveness that the councils will have.

As for women being able to participate, some believe the government is floating the idea as a trial balloon, and that it will tailor its final decision according to the public’s reaction.

A senior Saudi government official told The Washington Times, on the condition of anonymity, that women initially were included but that hard-liners within the government moved in at the last minute and quashed the idea.

“I refuse to believe that we won’t be able to participate. No government official has come out and said so clearly,” said Hatoon Al-Fassi, a professor of history at King Saud University in Riyadh, and one of the prime movers behind women participating in the elections.

Indeed, Miss Al-Fassi has prepared a general platform of issues for women candidates to tackle, ranging from community youth centers to neighborhood parks and environmental issues such as providing enough clean water to residential areas and recycling waste.

“I’m providing every female candidate with the basic platform. I want them to take it and build on it and customize it to their regional needs,” Miss Al-Fassi said.

Already, three women have announced their intentions to run in the elections, with a fourth still considering the prospect.

“Religiously, I don’t think there is anything in Islam that says we can’t run,” said Nadia Bakhurji of Riyadh, the first female candidate to declare her candidacy.

Should female candidates be accepted, campaigning would be problematic given restrictions on women in Saudi society.

They would have to wear the chador, the head-to-foot covering, when venturing outside their homes. Most public appearances would probably be banned because mixing of sexes is not allowed. Campaigning would probably be limited to appearances before female-only crowds in indoor venues.

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