On the Campaign Trail with Saudi Arabia’s First Women Candidates

In Reports

The first time Rasha Hefzi tried to walk into Jeddah’s municipal council, a shouting match broke out. Hefzi, a kind-faced 32-year-old with a surprisingly powerful voice, strode into the hall with a small group of youths and prominent women from the seaside city. They wanted to observe the meeting as citizens. It was 2009, and this hadn’t been tried before; the council sessions weren’t open to the public, and women weren’t allowed in the meeting hall.

The council president at the time refused to allow the women inside, even the older ladies, including a Chamber of Commerce board member and several prominent businesswomen. The young male member of Hefzi’s group pleaded their case to the council. “These are my sisters, my cousins — they are working hard, better than us,” Hefzi remembers her male friends arguing.

It was no use that day. But Hefzi came back, again and again, until the council gradually acquiesced to the idea of female observers over the following few months.

“The first time, they resisted. The second time, they said, ‘OK, come in, but sit on the other side of the room,’” Hefzi recalls. “Now, a lot of changes have happened. They are inviting us [women and youth] to all the meetings and all the private workshops.”

Come December, Hefzi could be an even more permanent fixture in Jeddah’s city hall. An entrepreneur who runs her own social media-driven PR company, Hefzi is one of the roughly 1,039 women who have filed paperwork to become candidates in Saudi Arabia’s municipal elections — the first ever in which women can vote and run for office. (A final candidate list won’t be released until Nov. 29. Candidates aren’t approved by authorities on political grounds, but they are required to prove they are citizens and have at least a high school diploma.)

So far, female suffrage has come fitfully to Saudi Arabia — two steps forward, one step back. Government officials have scrambled to pull together the rules and procedures for women, and many women said that bureaucratic red tape prevented them from registering to vote. Candidates are cobbling together strategies for their first electoral campaigns, even as Saudi society is locked in a louder-than-usual tussle over the role of women.

“It’s a new era in many ways, and everyone is discussing what that should mean,” says Othman Almoamar, a research associate at the King Salman Center for Local Governance, a Riyadh-based think tank that often consults for government ministries. “Of course, there’s a mixed view about it among citizens. For our culture, this is such a big step.”

For participants like Hefzi, the work is just beginning. Now from her Jeddah office, her mind races through the months ahead. If approved as a candidate, she will have less than two weeks to make her case to voters, during a campaign period that runs from Nov. 29 to Dec. 10. In those few days, her supporters will need to know where and when — but also why — they should cast a ballot on election day, Dec. 12. She needs to promise change but not so much that she can’t deliver. Her platform focuses on improving the relationship between the councils and the community, drawing on her background in public relations. Having volunteered for years with local charity groups, she also wants citizens to get more involved in the community, by whatever means available to them.

And Hefzi must do all this in a political environment that is constantly in flux.

“We are very scared,” admits Ihab Hassan Nassief, a youth activist who says he would work on Hefzi’s campaign if her paperwork is approved. “Rasha [Hefzi] is a winning horse, but it’s the first time for women, and we have no idea what is going to happen. We don’t know what sort of reaction people will have.”

Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah announced the decision to allow female suffrage back in 2011, but the regulations and procedures surrounding the vote, and public opinion about it, have only recently become clear. At times, it has seemed to many women that even the electoral authorities are improvising as they go.

In organizing the events surrounding the election — from the registration process to the campaigns to voting day — authorities have had the explicit goal of maintaining strict gender separation. Female and male voters and candidates filed their paperwork at separate centers, each of which needed to be rented and staffed by the correct gender. Women registrants were asked to provide the same paperwork as men — a requirement that created hiccups for some female registrants, as many don’t have electrical and utility bills in their names, making it difficult to corroborate their places of residency.

Other processes have been changed entirely to accommodate women, such as the rules for candidate advertising. In the spring of 2015, municipal officials from across the country met to discuss a telling quandary: Should female candidates be allowed to show their photos on posters? It was a careful back and forth, considering the impact of photos on both the election outcome and Saudi Arabia’s culture and reputation, says Almoamar, who attended the meeting. In the end, authorities decided that, rather than permit posters depicting women, no candidate would be allowed to advertise with images of themselves.

“The debate was about how women should market themselves as candidates or run their campaigns — particularly whether [women’s] faces should be allowed and what’s the proper way,” he recalls of the meeting.

Women and men will also remain strictly gender-segregated throughout the campaign. Many candidates will set up electoral tents in their neighborhoods, where they can hold court in the evenings before the vote, sipping tea with constituents and giving the occasional campaign speech. But female candidates will have to address male visitors by video feed, so as to avoid direct personal contact. Male candidates will also need to address female voters this way.

Aspiring women candidates are scrambling to learn the barrage of rules and protocols. Outside of private clubs and chambers of commerce, this is the first exposure women have had to electoral politics, and even the most sophisticated participants have found themselves unprepared.

“It’s the first experience for all of us,” says Haifa al-Hababi, a female architect who says she is filing papers to be a candidate in Riyadh. “When they gave us the application form … it’s like I’m reading something in a different language.”

Hefzi may well be better placed than many aspiring female candidates going into the polls. Her relationship to the municipality dates back to 2007, when she and a group of fellow activists campaigned to clean up Jeddah’s corniche. Two years later, Jeddah was hit by catastrophic floods, as unusually strong seasonal rains washed away whole neighborhoods and killed dozens. The government was slow to respond, so Hefzi jumped in again: She and several friends solicited donations for basic goods, collecting them at Hefzi’s home until they convinced the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce to endorse their activities. Soon, her operation expanded to include 500 youth volunteers, augmenting a deployment of the country’s Civil Defense forces.

It was fresh off the flood experience that Hefzi first attempted to gain entry to the municipal council. Her group of young friends had grown adept at rallying volunteers on social media and wanted to help the council communicate better with constituents. As she started attending the meetings, however, she soon found herself immersed in the whole of the council’s work — zoning, contracts, city planning. She built relationships with council members and advised them on public relations when she could.

That experience has helped her understand just how unprepared many female candidates are. Few have experience in policymaking of any sort; some have never interacted professionally with men. “There is segregation between men and women, so maybe 60 or 70 percent of experience that women have is from dealing with just women, not the whole community,” she says.

Despite recent economic openings, few women work in technical fields like engineering and architecture. “All the members [on the council now] know lots about infrastructure, contractors, and so on. But even businesswomen have not been dealing with these issues in society.”

But despite her years of civic activism, Hefzi expects a tough battle at the polls — and that’s only partly because of her gender. As with any election campaign, candidates will need money and connections to rally support. That was a lesson she learned firsthand in 2011, while supporting her preferred candidate at the time — fellow activist, Nassief. He lost the race in favor of the head of the local Quranic school network backed by conservatives, who had put together a “golden list” of religiously minded candidates.

“If you’re rich, if you have this tribal card to play, or if you have a beard and are religious — those are the main criteria [to be elected],” Nassief says. He estimates the average campaign costs about 600,000 Saudi riyals ($160,000). If Hefzi’s application to run for office is approved in late November, she won’t just have to mount a campaign before the Dec. 12 vote — she’ll also have to raise the necessary funds from supporters and businesses.

Equally challenging will be simply getting people to the polls. December’s vote will be the third municipal elections in Saudi Arabia’s history, and many here say they have been disappointed by the councils’ performances so far. Many had expected to see more progress on long-running problems, such as damaged roads and overburdened sanitation systems.

“I’m not interested in the selection because it’s useless. I don’t see any benefit,” says Hatem al-Ali, a 42-year-old finance worker from Jeddah’s Al Jamiah neighborhood, relaying a common sentiment. He has no trouble listing the problems he’d like the council to fix — but has little faith they will resolve them. “Education is the first priority for me. And the roads. The garbage. The mosquitos. We have an epidemic of rats in Jeddah, especially in the south.”

Voter disillusionment may be universal, but it is likely to have a far greater impact on female candidates. Women will make up just about 6 percent of the total electorate, meaning that no one can win office with female votes alone. But female candidates are certain to face steep cultural barriers when they try to win support from male voters. The municipal elections have sparked a vocal debate about the role of women in public life. Conservative clerics have rallied against female suffrage, loudly condemning it on social media. “There is pressure [on voters] from conservatives, who still believe it is a war between the liberals and the conservatives,” Hefzi says.

Hefzi, who has previously worked with Islamic charities, laughs at accusations that she is a liberal. “There are those who don’t believe in the council itself and who don’t believe in women, either.”

Rather than dive headfirst into a culture war, Hefzi and her allies suggest that they will try to blunt conservative criticism by reaching out to their erstwhile foes. Nassief suggested forging alliances with technocratic conservatives, who could see the utility of horse-trading during the campaign.

“If you talk to the conservatives, they will say, ‘Women shouldn’t stand,’” he says. “But if they are going to stand anyway, they might as well pick up some allies along the way.”

As election day approaches, Hefzi and her colleagues feel the weight of expectation riding on their efforts. She’s worried she will “burn all [her] cards” if she runs and loses. But then, it’s hard to imagine that Hefzi will be deterred by an electoral setback. In nearly a decade of work, she hasn’t let a closed municipal council door stay shut for long.

This is the second in a series of articles reporting on the state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Reporting for this story was made possible through a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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Elizabeth Dickinson
Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, and The National, among other publications. She is the author of the Kindle Single Who Shot Ahmed, an account of a young videographer shot in cold blood at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring. She is also co-editor of the recent book The Southern Tiger, a narrative memoir by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. She has reported from five continents and speaks French, Spanish, and Krio (Sierra Leone), as well as basic Yoruba and Arabic.