There was huge excitement among Saudi women as they headed to the polling booths for the first time as voters and candidates in Saturday’s municipal council elections in Saudi Arabia. This is only the third time that elections are being held to elect municipal councils. In the first two elections, women were excluded from the process.
Hana Al-Zuhair, the head of the Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Fund for Women’s Development in the eastern province city of Alkhobar, said that she was very proud of what was happening. “This is a great learning experience for us. The fact that more than 900 women candidates are contesting is proof that women are excited and optimistic. We are moving ahead gradually. We are taking one step at a time, which is how it should be,” she said.
She said that because of the active participation of women there is every possibility that even if women do not win, they will be nominated to these councils by the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs. “There is a precedent for this,” Al-Zuhair said.
During the elections for places on the Eastern Province Chamber of Commerce and Industry board, when women could not win through the ballot, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry nominated two women to the board. Al-Zuhair was one of them and she did a good job raising issues of concern to businesswomen during her stint from 2011 to 2014. “I am very optimistic and very happy at the way this whole process has gone,” she said.
Perhaps the one person who played a key role in influencing the decision-makers to allow women to participate in the municipal council elections is Hatoon Al-Fassi. A well-respected historian and academic from Makkah but based in Riyadh, Al-Fassi is the founder of the Baladi Initiative — a national civil society campaign for women’s participation in the public sphere. She ran several workshops to educate women about campaigning and electioneering.
She said that despite all the obstacles and challenges this has been a great experience for women. Will any of these more than 900 women candidates win? “I cannot answer that question,” she said. “I do not want to hazard a guess. But the fact that they entered the race and went through all the stages, both as candidates and as voters, is a testimony to their determination,” she said. “This is the way forward and there is no turning back.”
Al-Fassi said she was very impressed with the way some women candidates have run their campaigns. “The politically savvy among them have used social media tools such as Snapchat, YouTube and Facebook in a very creative way to explain their manifesto. There was an intelligent use of infographics to catch the eye of voters,” she said.
Al-Fassi was particularly impressed by Al-Jawhara Al-Wably in Buraidah and Rasha Hefzi in Jeddah. “They ran brilliant campaigns,” she said and felt that by and large, the campaigning by women candidates showed an advanced degree of professionalism and seriousness on their part. “And, come to think of it, this is just the beginning,” she added.
Al-Fassi said the path for women, and men, was strewn with heavy obstacles. “Many restrictions were imposed by the Election Commission. These hampered their efforts to reach out to the electorate. For example, in my district in Riyadh, there are 62 candidates. This is classified as District No. 5. Of these 62 candidates, 23 are women. I know only five of them and that’s because of their association with our Baladi Initiative. I don’t know the other 18 women candidates. Nor do they know me as a voter,” she said. “And there was no medium to connect us. This was a huge drawback.”
She said this was not the case only in Riyadh. “My mother in Makkah has been constantly calling me to find out about the candidates in her district. There was no way of providing her any information. There was no medium to reach the candidates,” she said.
Al-Fassi said these obstacles were not specific to women. “Male candidates were in a similar situation,” she said. “However, it is a very satisfying moment to know that women have, despite all the odds, broken many barriers to reach where they have reached — at the ballot box and in the history books,” she said.
Asya Al-Ashaikh, chairperson and chief executive officer of the Jeddah-based Tamkeen Management and Development Consulting, who did more than anybody else to popularise the concept of corporate social responsibility among Saudi businesses through her pioneering work, was equally ecstatic. “I am extremely proud, naturally,” she said. “Women’s participation in municipal elections was a dream that has turned into a reality. It is another historic moment for all Saudi women on their road to gaining their rights and participating in building our country.”
She does not think that any of the more than 900 women candidates would win. “I doubt it,” she said. “But this is expected. It has happened in other more open and more institutionalised Gulf countries.” However, she thinks the impact of women’s participation would be huge. “It sends a lot of messages to many segments of society,” she added.
Samia Al-Amoudi, a gritty woman who successfully battled breast cancer twice, and the founder and chief executive officer of the Al-Amoudi Center of Excellence for Breast Cancer, said it was a historic moment. “We are writing a new chapter in women’s empowerment and women’s rights,” she said.
She has been impressed by the number of women candidates in the fray. “I believe having this number of candidates on the ballot — in a closed society like ours, where women are having the right to vote for the first time, and elections are taking place for the first time in history — is an achievement in itself,” she said.
“The participation is important in itself and symbolic in a country witnessing changes and taking these major steps toward gender equality,” she said. According to her, the message going out to the world is that “changes and reforms are happening and the decision-makers believe and support these steps.”