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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 August, 2004, 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Saudi law unclear on women's vote
File photo of women in Saudi Arabia
Some Saudi women want a greater role in society
Saudi Arabia has published rules for forthcoming municipal elections that observers say hold out the possibility that women may be allowed to vote.

The new law approved by the municipal affairs ministry does not explicitly say women may play a part in council elections starting in November.

But nor are women clearly barred. Some say this means women may vote, though others maintain this is unlikely.

Saudi women are not allowed to drive or travel without a male chaperone.

Ambiguity gives options

Reports from the conservative kingdom say supporters of more rights for women are choosing to be optimistic about the election rules published in Saudi newspapers on Tuesday.

"As the text was left unclear on the issue, it means that decision-makers decided not to exclude women," Nahed Bashateh, a journalist, told AFP news agency.

21 or older
Saudi citizen
Not in military
Resident in constituency for at least 12 months
The wording of the regulations used the masculine form when referring to people, but that need not necessarily be a setback.

Ms Bashateh and others said that the masculine form is used to refer to citizens in general in Saudi law.

"Even the regulations for the journalists' union use the masculine form in reference to members, and yet I was voted in," Ms Bashateh said.

The new regulations say: "Every citizen has the right to vote if [they are]... over 21 years old, not a military man and have been residing in the constituency for a year before the day of the ballot."

The rules add that illiterate voters or those who do not understand the ballot may ask for help and those who are unable to attend polling stations personally may authorise a proxy.

Saudis are banned from using the elections "to cause disorder, sedition or any racial, tribal or regional conflicts".

Election campaigns are also barred from using mosques and public facilities.

Reform pressure

But while some observers believe the ambiguity in the gender of voters offers hope for women, others believe the government will stop short of enfranchising women.

The BBC's regional analyst Roger Hardy suggests the government is unlikely to invite a backlash from religious conservatives by opening up the vote.

The ruling Saud family has been under pressure from liberals to introduce far-reaching political, economic and social reforms.

Voters will elect half the members of 178 municipal councils. The elections will be held in three stages from November into early 2005. The rest of the representatives will be appointed by the government.

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