DUBAI – When conservative Saudi Arabia announced last year that it would hold partial municipal elections in which people for the first time could vote directly, the reaction of many in and out of the country was nothing less than shock.
Now reform-minded activists are pushing the envelope even further by announcing that several women will nominate themselves for the elections.
And what has been the government reaction to this groundbreaking and taboo-smashing revelation?
Not a word. Absolute silence.
"We are not sure what it means that they have not said a word," Mohsen Awaji, a political activist who advocates the participation of women in the upcoming elections told IPS in an interview. "It is just part of the overall confusion of this process."
Awaji and others call it confusing because the government has released very few details about the elections, including its precise date, how many members the council will have, what its role and responsibilities will be and who will be the election officials. Neither is it clear how many election polls will be carried out and where they will be.
In August, newspapers in Saudi Arabia have published an election law whereby citizens will be able to choose half the members of municipal councils.
The Saudi authorities had initially said the elections would be held by this month. But the lack of any sign of preparation led many observers to conclude they had been postponed.
Saudi Arabia has traditionally been run by the aging and conservative ruling family. Although a Shoura (consultative) assembly is in place, its members are appointed by the government, and it has no executive powers.
While some analysts have suggested that Saudi Arabia’s decision to establish a half-elected municipal council was the result of outside pressure to implement political reform, others like Awaji disagree.
"Saudi society is going through its own transformation. At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia will march with the international community, with or without the government’s approval," he said.
While so far only two women have officially expressed their interest to run in the elections, there are reports that half a dozen might contest in the end.
Before they can do so, however, the government will have to officially sanction their decision. The elections bylaws published by the government give voting rights to Saudi "citizens," without distinguishing between males and females.
The registration process has not started yet, so no one knows whether the government will accept the application of female candidates.
But many have suggested that in this male-dominated society where women do not have the right to drive, vote, travel abroad without explicit permission of a male sponsor, electing women would be too much of a shock to the system.
Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-Quwaihes, the chairman of the Shoura’s infrastructure and services committee, recently told the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Watan that women should not be elected, but could be members of subcommittees of the municipal elections.
"I believe that there will be other steps such as the formation of women’s committees for every municipal council," he said.
Others take a slightly more moderate approach, saying women should have the right to vote but maybe not get elected.
Meanwhile, women seeking representation are adopting a tone that they hope would divert attention from their gender and take the heat off the hardliners.
"I know there has been all this newspaper chatter about whether women should run or not," said Fatin Bandugji, one of the two women who has expressed interest in running in the elections.
"I am not running because I am a woman. I am running because I have a program I want to see implemented. I want to see things done and as a society we need to see things done. We need results," she told IPS.
The question of women running in the elections has a deeper meaning for reform-minded Saudis.
Saudi Arabia an absolute monarchy has never had political elections at any level since its creation in 1932. The desert kingdom has come under pressure from the U.S. and campaigners for change.
U.S. politicians and commentators say the country’s mixture of autocratic rule and puritanical Wahhabi Islam has provided a fertile breeding ground for fanaticism and violence. Domestic reformers have been more vocal than ever in their criticism of unemployment, corruption and the absence of free speech.
"A lot of people in Saudi Arabia are becoming pessimistic with [de facto ruler Prince] Abdullah [bin Abdel Aziz]," said one Saudi intellectual and reform activist. "They are saying, ‘What happened to the promises you made?’"
He said pushing for the participation of women is a signal to the government that the reform process has started and conservatism and stubborn-mindedness of some members of the royal family cannot stop it.
"We need to push them. We need to pressure them. Today, it is the question of women. Tomorrow, we will demand total participation in the municipal elections. The next day, we will ask that the Shoura members also be directly elected," said Awaji.
That maybe is just what the government is concerned about.
Some in Prince Abdullah’s court have suggested that the pro-reform activities can, if they are not measured, help the extremists and terrorists.
"Some have argued that if the reformists try to change society too quickly, it will benefit the radicals and they will have a better chance in gaining support for their cause from the more conservative elements of the society, or even members of the royal family," said one Saudi observer.
Pro-reformists argue that this is a scare tactic.
"Things like being able to vote and being elected are basic human rights. Every citizen should have that and it has nothing to do with opposing the government," responded Awaji.