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World

Obstacles Hamper Saudi Women From Registering To Vote

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Saudi Arabia, women are registering to vote for the first time in the country's history. Saudi Arabia has a king, of course, and there is no elected parliament, so women are voting to fill municipal councils that handle local issues. Our own Renee Montagne spoke with Hatoon al-Fassi, who teaches women's history at King Saud University and who is part of the women's rights campaign called Baladi.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Thank you very much for joining us.

HATOON AL-FASSI: Thank you, Renee, and welcome to you and your audience.

MONTAGNE: Americans will recognize that getting the right to votes - because it's true even in our country - is really dependent on a citizen's ability to register to vote. And that's the point where, you know, everything can come to a screeching halt. So this a key moment, clearly, for Saudi women, but it's been reported by news organizations there and elsewhere that only a handful of women have really been able to register so far.

AL-FASSI: That's true. The country is 20 million Saudis. Half of them are women. It's true that turnout is low, and, of course, we have lots of social obstacles that detain women from reaching centers to register. There's a long list of obstacles.

MONTAGNE: Let's get to some of those obstacles. Let's break it down. Saudi Arabia, famously, does not allow women to drive, and I gather there's no public transportation. So setting out to register - I mean, physically getting out of the house and going to register - how much of a hassle is that?

AL-FASSI: It's a lot of fuss. It's not only reaching through a transportation. It is to find the location, which is very difficult because most of the women's centers where registration hosts (ph), are not - of course, they are separate for the men. And they are not on the main street. They are usually - most of the time, it's very - (unintelligible) very inside quarters where you hardly reach, and you can't find it on the map.

MONTAGNE: Is the government or the local governments - are they trying to hide them from women, or is it that the women's schools and places women are normally allowed to go to are also sort of hidden, therefore the registration locations are hidden?

AL-FASSI: Well, well, I don't want to go into the intentions. I prefer to say that they don't have the right advice, and they should have made their choices for women even easier than men so they can reach without big trouble. Even if they're taking a cab, they could find it. And, you know, for registration, you need to register by your residence. And residents of Saudi Arabia having an address is very tricky (laughter) because not everything has a name. Not every house has a number.

MONTAGNE: And I also have heard that all apartments and homes are registered in the name of the husband - of the man. Therefore, how does a woman proves she lives there?

AL-FASSI: The issue of proving where this woman is living is a nightmare. The number of documents that she has to provide to prove where she lives is just immense.

MONTAGNE: Could I ask just beyond all of this - having described the difficulties, it's also a very short period of time to register.

AL-FASSI: Yeah, three weeks - you have only three weeks to do it, so this is another level of obstacles. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Have you registered? Have you gone through all of this yourself?

AL-FASSI: Yeah, of course, I registered.

MONTAGNE: I figured it might be the first one - either that or you're too busy trying to - trying to work this out with other people.

AL-FASSI: I tried to be - I tried to be the first (laughter). I kind of misplaced my ID card on the first day. I found it at the end of the day, and I registered the second day.

MONTAGNE: Oh. Do you, though - you still, I feel, are positive about this. I mean, it's quite a victory for the campaign for women's rights.

AL-FASSI: Yeah. Even if we get a thousand of women who registered, these numbers are amazing. A woman, in order to reach these centers and to register - she's breaking so many barriers and so many taboos. You won't believe the determination that Saudi women are having. There is proverb that's translates - the difficulty of reaching a goal is saying that you're finding the milk of the bird. Even if they are asking her to get the bird's milk, she will go and get it. She will keep on doing it and struggling until she reaches her goal. So this kind of feeling and determination is driving Saudi women to fulfill this moment. It's - here we are, exercising our citizenship for the first time. It's just amazing, and we are not letting it down.

MONTAGNE: Hatoon al-Fassi - she is an assistant professor of women's history at King Saud University, speaking to us from Riyadh. She is also a leader of the campaign for women's rights. Thank you very much for joining us, and hopefully, we'll be talking to you certainly during these elections themselves.

AL-FASSI: (Foreign language spoken). Thank you for having me, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.