RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Women may neither vote nor run
in Saudi Arabia’s first nationwide elections, the government
announced yesterday, dashing hopes of progressive Saudis and easing
fears among conservatives that the kingdom is moving too fast on
reforms.

Some women considered the move yet another indignity in a
country where they need their husbands’ permission to study,
travel or work. But others said they wouldn’t trust
themselves to judge whether a candidate is more than just a
handsome face.

The religious establishment had been lobbying against
women’s participation in the elections, diplomats said.

But an electoral official cited administrative and logistical
reasons yesterday for the decision to ban women from the municipal
elections, scheduled to be held in three stages from Feb. 10 to
April 21.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there
are not enough women to run women’s-only registration centers
and polling stations, and that only a fraction of the
country’s women have the photo identity cards that would have
been needed to vote.

Many women in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, have balked
at getting the ID cards — introduced three years ago —
because the photographs would show their faces unveiled.

Saudi women have limited freedoms. Without written permission
from a male guardian, they may not travel, get an education or
work. Regardless of permissions, they are not allowed to drive, mix
with men in public or leave home without covering themselves with
black cloaks, called abayas.

The decision was first announced by Interior Minister Prince
Nayef in an interview published yesterday. In his terse comment to
a Kuwaiti newspaper, Nayef said only: “I don’t think
that women’s participation is possible.”

His remark was the first by a named top official on the issue.
It settled a question that had been occupying Saudis since the
government set the date for the elections in August. When the
election law was published, it did not explicitly bar women from
voting, which encouraged three women to declare themselves
candidates.

“I am surprised,” said Nadia Bakhurji, 37, the first
woman to announce she planned to run. “I was optimistic and
didn’t think they would ban it.”

Bakhurji said she hoped Nayef and the elections committee would
“rethink their decision” and show transparency by
saying why women have been banned.

She said that would give women the chance to “work
hand-in-hand with them to solve these problems in time for
elections,” said Bakhurji, an architect and a mother of
two.

“My concern is if they don’t bring us on board now,
we will be fighting for something that should be a given
right,” she said.

Not all Saudi women agree. Taking a break from shopping at the
food court of a Riyadh mall, Nour Ahmed and her five female friends
split evenly on the issue.

“Women are capable of voting and making the right
choices,” said Ahmed, a 22-year-old marketing graduate.
“Why aren’t men and women equal in this
issue?”

“We aren’t,” countered her friend Sarah
Muhammad. “We have so little interaction with men that we
will vote with our emotions, choosing candidates for their looks
and sweet talk rather than for what they can deliver.”

Rima Khaled, 20, said Saudi women are not used to playing a role
in public life, and many social and traditional restraints should
first be removed before they can.

“What’s the point of voting?” she asked.
“Even if we did vote, we would go home to the men in our
lives who will have the last say in whatever we do.”

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