Saudi women breaking barriers with ballot

Saudi women breaking barriers with ballot
Aljazi Al Hussaini, a candidate, shows an electoral campaign licence.

Riyadh - For the first time they can run as well as cast votes


Published: Thu 10 Dec 2015, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 17 Dec 2015, 3:13 PM

Outside of the Saudi capital, Jowhara Al Wably is making history. She's running in this weekend's elections.
Saturday's vote for local council seats marks two milestones for Saudi women: Not only can they run in a government election for the first time, it is the first time they are permitted to vote at all.
The municipal councils are the only government body in which Saudi citizens can elect representatives, so the vote is widely seen as a small but significant opening for women to play a more equal role in Saudi society.
Still, women face challenges on the campaign trail: Because of strict policy of segregation of the sexes, they cannot address male voters directly and have to speak from behind a partition - or have male relatives speak for them.
In an effort to create a more level-playing field, the General Election Committee banned both male and female candidates from showing their faces in promotional flyers, billboards or in social media. They're also not allowed to appear on television.
This suits Al Wably, a 52-year-old community activist and Ministry of Education employee. Like all women in Saudi Arabia, she wears an abaya. She also covers her face and hair under "niqab" when in public.

When she meets female voters, she talks to them at the hotel conference hall she's rented in Buraydah, 350km northwest of Riyadh. But when she makes her pitch to male voters this week, she won't be doing the talking. Her two sons, both in their mid-20s, her husband and her brothers will address the male crowd and she won't be present.
With around 5,000 men registered to vote in her district compared to 620 registered female voters, Al Wably says she can't afford to rely solely on Internet campaigning through Twitter and Facebook to reach men.
"I want to be part of the development of my city," she said. "I want to be a positive force on the ground in my community."
While the councils do not have legislative powers, they do oversee a range of community issues, such as budgets for maintaining and improving public facilities like parks, roads and utilities.
The first local council election was held in 2005 and the second in 2011, with only men taking part. This time around, state-affiliated media report there are 979 female candidates and 5,938 male candidates vying for seats. About 130,000 women have registered to vote versus 1.35 million male voters.
Up for grabs are around 2,100 council seats. An additional 1,050 seats are appointed with approval from the king. While there is no quota for women, the king may use his powers to ensure at least some women get onto the councils.
At his campaign headquarters in Saudi Arabia's second-largest city of Jeddah, Bassam Akhdar said he allocated a night specifically to reach out to the female electorate, with female staff lined up to explain his platform.
But no women showed up and none have passed by his office to inquire about his campaign. So he ended up allocating the entire space to his male constituency, who come every night to hear and meet him.
"I would be happy to have a woman's vote. This is a gain for me," said the 47-year-old businessman, who won a seat in the past two elections - and spent 400,000 riyals on his latest campaign.
Despite vast differences between Saudi Arabia's cultural sensitivities and the bombast often associated with campaigns in the West, criticism of women's participation has largely been muted, though one prominent cleric warned against this being a Western-style election.

A long way to democracy
> The first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia took place in the mid-20s in the Hijaz cities of Jeddah, Yanbu and Taif and holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.
> Elections for other municipalities were held between 1954 and 1962.
> In 2005, elections for half the municipal councillors were held, with men voting for male candidates.
> In the year 2008, two women were elected to the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
> In February 2009 it was announced that municipal elections scheduled for 2009 would be postponed indefinitely "for evaluation".
> A government spokesperson said that they were postponed to consider suffrage for women in the next elections
> The municipal elections were eventually scheduled for and took place in 2011, but universal suffrage was delayed until the scheduled 2015 vote.

Nassima Al Sadah, a candidate, posing for picture at her office in Qatif.
Nassima Al Sadah, a candidate, posing for picture at her office in Qatif.

More news from