2 activists barred as Saudi women launch first vote bid

Riyadh: Hundreds of Saudi women began campaigning for public office today, in a first for women in the conservative Muslim kingdom’s slow reform process even as two activists were disqualified.

More than 900 women are standing alongside thousands of men in the December 12 municipal ballot, which will also mark the first time women are allowed to vote.

“I’ve been eliminated as a candidate for the municipal elections,” Loujain Hathloul said in a tweet. “I will be filing my objection via the appropriate channels.”

Saudi authorities detained Hathloul for more than two months after she tried to drive into the kingdom last December from United Arab Emirates, in defiance of a Saudi ban on female motorists.

She could not immediately be reached but earlier told AFP that she wanted to run “to increase the percentage of women’s participation”.

Nassima al-Sadah, a human rights activist and would-be candidate in the Gulf coast city of Qatif, said officials informed her late Saturday that her name had been removed from the list.

“I don’t know why,” said Sadah, who was trained in electioneering from the National Democratic Institute, a Washington non-profit organisation.

Her campaign was on hold as she tried to clarify her case.

Ruled by King Salman, oil-rich Saudi Arabia has no elected legislature and has faced intense Western scrutiny over its rights record.

The country’s first municipal elections were held in 2005, followed by another vote in 2011. In both cases only men were allowed to participate.

From restaurants to banks, offices — and election facilities — the sexes are strictly segregated in the kingdom.

“We will vote for the women even though we don’t know anything about them,” Um Fawaz, a teacher in her 20s, said in Hafr al-Batin city.

“It’s enough that they are women,” she said.

The absolute monarchy, which applies a strict interpretation of Islam, has faced widespread criticism for a lack of equal rights.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. They must also cover themselves in black from head-to-toe in public and require permission from male family members to travel, work or marry.