Outside of the Saudi capital, in one of the country’s most conservative provinces, 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 like al-Wably: 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 Saudi Arabia’s 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 all candidates, both men and women, 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 a loose-flowing black robe called an “abaya.” She also covers her face and hair under a veil called a “niqab” when in public.
When she meets with female voters in her district, she talks to them at the hotel conference hall she’s rented in Buraydah, 220 miles (350 kilometers) 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 told The Associated Press. “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. All major decision-making powers rest solely in the hands of King Salman and the all-male Cabinet of ministers.
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.
While calling the vote a “step forward for women,” Rothna Begum of Human Rights Watch noted that because male candidates cannot directly address women, they could easily disregard the female vote because it is proportionally so much smaller. And the high cost of running a visible campaign has proven prohibitive for some female candidates, she said; at least 31 dropped out because it was too expensive.
At his campaign headquarters in Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city of Jiddah, 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.