In municipal council races in Saudi Arabia a week ago, 21 female candidates were elected to office. In the country’s third-ever elections, the monarchy gave women the right to vote, as well as to seek election to office.
Nearly 1,000 women ran throughout the country, but while there were 1.36 million men registered to vote, according to the Wall Street Journal, only 130,000 women could vote.
NPR’s Rachel Martin and Marisa Peñaloza traveled to Saudi Arabia ahead of the election to find out how women were reacting to their new rights and how they’ve been living.
One candidate’s view
Haifa Alhababi is an architect and university teacher. She also was one of the women vying for a spot on one of the municipal councils.
“First of all, I was curious to know what’s happening.
“Like, I went to the balloting workshop … if it’s like, really beneficial or if it’s like, because I have this idea from living abroad that this is about, this is a major step, and who runs here?
“But for myself I don’t want to be, like, a politician — I’m not a politician, I’m an architect. So I wanted just to be sure. Is it work like outside, or its something different here? So thank God that I went to this workshop and I realized that it’s more about local issues that we really face.”
Alhababi, who had studied abroad in the U.K. and who also had lived in Texas for some time, said the country’s standing in the world is not where some would like to hope.
“I always said that they call us ‘developing country’ because we have the oil — but we are not a developing country, we are still third-world country,” she said. “So to deal with this mentality, to deal with these people, to deal with this system here, you need to work on ground, not just to lecture and say words and that’s it.”
Alhababi is optimistic about her generation’s future.
“I believe that we’re gonna create change,” she says. “When you experience, try something, live it, you understand. So you want to apply it to your country. No one hates their country — when you come back and live, that means you love your country, so you want to make it better.
“What’s happening now, for me, it’s not about male and female, it’s about the changing conception of people — that they try to understand that they should participate in their community. They should understand that, without your participation, the country won’t go any further.”
What else do Saudi Arabian women need?
Some women, like Aziza Youssef, don’t see how the election connects to their daily lives.
“I’m boycotting the election,” she says. “In my point of view, it’s putting backward the women movement for rights. … This election is just — it’s for the West, it’s not for us. … It’s good for our picture in the West.”
Youssef, a former university lecturer now operating a full-time catering business, says she’s made a name for herself by helping push the Saudi government to remove its ban against women driving. Youssef says while people in the West may think letting women vote is great for women, it’s exactly what the Saudi regime wants the world to think.
Her daughter, Sarah Alkhalidi, agrees that the elections won’t mean much.
“It’s like giving me a cashmere sweater when I need a place to sleep — that’s the analogy I’m using,” she says.
The thirtysomething mother of three says she wants more control of her daily life.
“I can’t open a bank account for my children that takes money out of my paycheck and, like, for a savings account for them. I can’t do that — their dad has to do that,” Alkhalidi says. “So it’s like the whole guardianship issue. … Even if my guardian tries to renew my passport, I can’t pick it up. He has to pick it up for me. So I feel like these issues are more significant and more — like they have more influence on my daily life.”
Guardianship rules dictate how women move around in Saudi society. They move with the permission of men — either a father, a brother, a husband or a son. Men also act as so-called guardians who oversee women’s choices and escort them in public places.
Security in Saudi Arabia, and its effect on calling for social change
The recent aggressive response to would-be terrorists in the country has also meant a crackdown on anyone who seems to be speaking out in a way that threatens the regime. That means human rights activists, including Hala al Dosari.
For the past year al Dosari has been in the United States for a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She also writes about women’s issues for Saudi websites and international media, and as a result has been stigmatized at home as someone who wants to import Western values into Saudi culture.
She’s supposed to go back home at the end of her fellowship, but she’s afraid.
“I listen to other activists being summoned for interrogation, and being threatened and being warned and being silenced — and I don’t want to end up like that,” she says. “So I do feel intimidated. I do feel threatened.”
She misses her family — her nieces and nephews especially. But she thinks she can effect more social change in Saudi Arabia from the outside, so she doesn’t know when she’ll go back.
“I don’t think of it as a price, or as a cost,” she says. “I think it’s whether you want to live aligned with what you believe in. I believe it’s a duty, that everyone should do their part. And I don’t think I’ve paid the price of … men and women who have been imprisoned — and still imprisoned for years, for ten years or so — for stating their opinions.
“And I’m safe. I’m able to voice my concerns, I live in autonomy, I’m protected.”
A quiet campaign
While followers of American elections are familiar with lengthy primary and general elections, the Saudi candidates are under tight restrictions.
They spoke to NPR reporters only on condition that the material could not be published before election day on Dec. 12. The gag order affects both female and male candidates, but candidates spoke to NPR anyway.
At one event we attended, we were told we could not record the candidates’ statements. Government minders often watch over the candidates at their events.
Candidates also can’t provide promotional materials that show their face, though some have found ways around that.
The glass wall
On the trip, Martin and Peñaloza met with a member of the Saudi royal family. Princess Princess Reema Bint Bandar al-Saud, who until recently was the CEO of department store Harvey Nichols in Riyadh, walked us around a store and talked about the efforts for equality.
All the big names are here in Riyadh: Chanel, Dior, La Mer. And working behind the counters were women all dressed in the same long black robes, called abayas. Some wore thin veils over their faces, but most just had a loose scarf around their head.
During the visit, Princess Reema pointed out a glass-encased office where the female employees sat.
“I guess the glass ceiling is in the West … for us, it’s the glass wall,” she says. “She can’t stand up, but you can see her — and it’s important for me to make sure that the men see and recognize that that woman is their equal. But out of respect for our community and our culture, she’s in her private space.”
Six years ago, Princess Reema decided that the way to get more women into her stores was to make them more comfortable — and that meant hiring women to sell things to them.
“It was difficult when we first hired the ladies, because [the male employees] weren’t sure how to react to them,” she says. “They weren’t sure how to get in an elevator with them; they weren’t sure, ‘is it okay to say good morning, or do we ignore her?’ But once she’s your colleague, you’ve got to kind of talk to this girl. And we just kept moving the girls up to more senior positions.”
NPR’s Rachel Martin had some parting thoughts as she and the team departed Saudi Arabia. You can watch her clip below.
‘A Good Moment’
After returning to the U.S., Martin spoke with Hatoon al-Fassi, a professor of women’s studies at King Saud University in Riyadh. Fassi happened to be in Washington, D.C., and Martin asked her to reflect on the significance of the Saudi elections.
Despite the continued obstacles in campaigning, and even registering to campaign, Fassi says the results of the municipal elections offer reason for optimism.
“Now you have women who are in the public eye for the first time, where they have to deal with real issues of their community,” Fassi says. “I believe that these local positions are very important. Women could change many discriminatory rules that deals with women’s financial status, women’s health, women’s well-being.”
And even if it’s a small victory, Fassi says, it’s a crucial one — and one that should be savored.
“This is a good moment of reflecting on the victories. And it gives me hope that change can happen in my lifetime.”