It’s election season in Saudi Arabia, and for the first time, women can vote and campaign for seats on local municipal councils. More than 900 women have put themselves forward as candidates. The ballot is next week, in a small and limited step towards democracy.
At a political meeting for women in Riyadh, professors, writers and activists gather to talk about the campaign. There are jugs of strong coffee and a snack table. Smartphones are held close.
Everything is new, says Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi professor and leading women’s rights activist. It’s about more than getting the vote; it’s introducing women in this conservative society into public life.
“Being in the public [is] very frightening, very intimidating, very all sorts of things,” she says. “We are doing things from scratch. We are having baby steps into this world of democracy.”
Baby steps because the obstacles are so huge. The campaign rules are a list of no’s: No pictures on campaign literature. Women can’t contact voters on the country’s most popular social networking channel, WhatsApp. They can’t talk to men when campaigning in public.
Plus the country’s grand mufti, or chief cleric, said in 2011 that having women in politics would mean “opening the door to evil.”
Still, says Fassi, women candidates are braving it all to run. “Now we are having five, six, candidates in this room,” she says. “It’s really amazing that they made it to this day.”
Two years ago, Thoraya Obaid was one of the first women to be appointed by the Saudi king to the traditionally all-male national advisory council. There was plenty of opposition back then. But now it’s accepted that women can advise the king. The right to vote, she says, is another important step.
“It’s an assertion that we are citizens,” she says, “and we have rights and we are exercising those rights just like the men.”
So far, only 136,000 women have registered to vote in Saudi Arabia, compared to more than a million men. But Obaid, who had a long career as a U.N. official promoting women’s rights, is optimistic. She says it often happens that women candidates lose the first time they get the vote.
Across the Persian Gulf region, monarchies are going forward with limited democracy. The Saudis are following this trend, says Karen Young at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
But change here comes from the top down, and it’s cautious. Political parties are still banned. Local councils have little power. Voter registration is low across the region.
“The expectation of participation in governance is so new and so low from the citizen population, many people have to be convinced of why they should vote,” Young says.
Saudi activist Aziza Youssef skipped the Riyadh women’s gathering. She didn’t register to vote. She didn’t see the point.
“I am boycotting the election because this is just window dressing to give the idea that women have rights in Saudi Arabia,” she says.
Her country is the only place in the world where women are banned from driving and need permission from a male guardian to travel or go to college. But despite the restrictions they face, Saudi women political candidates are determined to take this first step.
“We will learn from it,” says Obaid. “The society will change by it. Even men will change by it. So, in that sense, it is worth going through it. No going back.”