I am a Saudi citizen. I am over 21; I am educated; I am positively contributing to society by educating hundreds of university-level Saudis every year, and I am patriotic. Yet, I am not eligible to vote in my country.
It is not because I have a criminal record or because I participated in any anti-government organizations — because I have committed neither. And, even if I had, I recently read that prisoners will be allowed to vote. Nor is it because I am handicapped and cannot go to cast my vote because officials have kindly removed that obstacle by enabling handicapped Saudis to vote through an agent. As you can see, my country is doing its best to encompass as many Saudis in the new elections as possible; but they just cannot include me. My crime is too unforgivable. My handicap is beyond help. I am a woman.
We cannot and must not function with half our population. That has been our gravest mistake thus far, and we are obviously not learning from our mistakes. Usually, the reasons given for marginalization of women in Saudi Arabia are either religious or social, but neither pertain here. As far as religion is concerned, I do not think anyone with any knowledge of Islamic history can deny that Islamic society was perhaps the first culture to include women in the “voting” process. More than 1,400 years ago, two women were among the first few people who approached the Prophet (peace be upon him) to pledge their allegiance. This was known as the First Bayah. The Prophet did not turn these women away, nor did he turn away the many other women who came side by side with their male counterparts during the Second Bayah years later in Makkah.
And as for social reasons, well the elections are new to all of us. This is a chance to write on a clean slate for a change. The extensive media coverage of the elections can highlight the importance of getting all members of society to contribute. Reading the slogans on the billboards recently posted on many streets in Riyadh, I could not help but see the irony behind every line. “Your voice will not be heard unless you register”; “Participate in making decisions.” The irony lays in the following paradox: On the one hand, you have a slogan that is obviously phrased to convince as many people as possible to participate, and on the other you have a rule that excludes more than half the population.
Finally, I would like to say that while my voice has been muted, I am still here. I may not be able to vote today, but I will continue the struggle to be heard simply because, in the words of Martin Luther King, “I have a dream.”
I’ll believe Bush supports democracy the day he calls for Saudi Arabia to give the vote to women.