What if Saudi Arabia Threw an Election for Women and Nobody Came?

In Reports

The announcement lasted a mere five minutes, but it was enough to make Noura Al Souwayan’s commute home on Sept. 25, 2011, the most memorable moment in a lifetime of campaigning for women’s rights. That evening, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah gave a brief address promising to grant women the right to vote in the kingdom’s only elections, for local municipal councils.

“It was like a dream for me,” the sociology professor said. “This is [happening] in our society — my society. I called so many friends; I was almost crying.”

Across town, Munira Al Mayouf, a corporate manager, heard the news at home and was sure that more change was on the horizon. Maybe the country would allow women to drive soon, she imagined. In Jeddah, Fatin Bundagji, a board member in the city’s Chamber of Commerce who had been pressing for women to be included in the vote, had a more practical reaction. The king, she said, “saved us a lot of work.”

Souwayan, Mayouf, and Bundagji are among the dozens of women who have for the last decade devoted themselves to pushing for women’s suffrage in the municipal elections that will take place on Dec. 12. Organizing in homes and social media, they called their citizen movement Baladi, or My Country. This quiet movement — led by businesswomen and professors, housewives and grandmothers — was among the first to pinpoint local elections as an entry point for women into Saudi political life. The councils are the only elected representation in the country, helping set budgets and priorities on local issues such as schools, road safety, and local infrastructure work.

Yet with their long-sought elections now at hand, many of these same women are more worried than celebratory. Female voter registration, which took place in August and September, was low and analysts and advocates alike say there is a good chance no women candidates will be elected in December. If that were to happen, these activists fear that their efforts to win greater rights for women will experience another setback.

“What if no woman wins? My fear is that at this stage we have momentum, but once things settle, and if women are not elected, life goes back to normal,” says Bundagji, who is also the spokeswoman for Baladi. “The impact all depends on how the elections go.”

The high electoral stakes are part of the growing pressure women are facing across the kingdom, as they slowly take on a larger role in public life. Since 2013 women have been appointed to the Shura Council, a national advisory parliament, and have seen their opportunities for employment grow exponentially. Female workers once clustered in teaching and nursing are now opening their own businesses, running the cash registers at malls, and cooking in restaurants.

Yet with each new sector of society they enter — whether it is politics or hotel work — they face scrutiny from those hostile to change. Female store clerks tell of men and women clients alike who scold their moral character for working in mixed-gender environments. Social media is rife with hashtags and media campaigns by conservative clerics warning that female participation in public life is a gateway to a sinful society. Even the most cosmopolitan businessmen often underestimate their female employees and colleagues, women here say. When women take on high profile roles — whether as television presenters or government officials — their dress rather than their performance is often the first point of scrutiny.

Aware of the stakes, Bundagji and her colleagues have spent much of the last year doing all they can to help ensure the municipal elections are a success. Baladi members have held workshops for voters and hopeful candidates, and have tried to convince their own skeptical family members and friends to get involved. The government stopped a series of workshops meant to help female candidates acquaint themselves with the process in August, citing concerns that they would give women an unfair advantage. But Baladi continues to offer advice to hopeful female candidates on social media. Candidates have just a two-week window, which began on Nov. 29, to campaign.

“This is the real beginning for women to participate,” says Souwayan, who coordinates Baladi activities in Riyadh. “Saudi women don’t participate in civic life. We see this is the gateway to have this participation.”

The women behind Baladi began to congregate in 2004, a year before the first Saudi municipal elections were held. Many were longtime women’s rights campaigners: Souwayan, for example, was among the dozens of women to publicly get behind the wheel of a car in Riyadh in the 1990s, to protest the government’s ban on driving for women.

The 2005 vote spurred other women to get involved for the first time. “The general narrative in the newspapers [ahead of the 2005 vote] was about: Will women be part of it?” said Bundagji, who was then head of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce’s women’s section. As a prominent businesswoman, she found herself as an unexpected commentator on the topic.

In one interview at the time, a local reporter misunderstood their conversation, and declared in her article that Bundagji had nominated herself as a candidate. “I honestly panicked,” she said. But after the shock wore off, she decided running might not be so bad.

Women weren’t allowed to vote in 2005, but the idea had been planted. Baladi was born and took its name by 2010, a year before the next round of voting. Its initially small network of a handful had grown into dozens scattered across Saudi Arabia. They started small, organizing group discussions in their houses among their friends to talk through what suffrage would mean. Word of mouth and social media soon expanded their reach, both to the public and to policymakers.

Saudi Arabia is gender segregated in every facet of public life, from schools to shopping centers to office waiting rooms. The vast majority of women don’t work, and many leave home only with a male guardian at their side. Imagining women having an equal vote to men in the political affairs of their communities was, for many, a stretch.

“The most important thing is to convince women that it’s not enough just for you to sit home and complain,” said Muna Akeel, a Saudi journalist who has supported Baladi. “It’s convincing them that you can do more — there is a way to get their voices heard.”

Even Baladi members found the first resistance they encountered was close to home. “A lot of women believe that this campaign is supposed to be for men,” says Mayouf, “Even my sisters, I couldn’t convince them to vote.”

The women candidates do have one example of females in public life to look to, as they run their campaigns. In the same 2011 announcement granting universal suffrage in future municipal elections, King Abdullah announced that women would be appointed to the Shura Council. Two years later, 30 women joined the 150-member body, under a similar lens of scrutiny faced by candidates today. The media agonized over whether the new female members would be allowed in the same room as the men, what sort of partition would separate them, and how the genders would interact.

“We did get a lot of hassle in the beginning. A lot of the people have already accepted the idea that the right place for women is home,” said Thuraya Al Arrayed, one of those first appointees to the Shura Council. “[But] our being in the public space, not just as physical beings but participating full-fledged experts, when they see she can do the same job as well or better than the males, it does change [critics], whether they are aware of it or not.”

The women on the Shura Council, however, were able to win over doubters by proving their competence in office. Female members have managed to impress both liberals and conservatives alike by pushing for reform — though they have been careful not to push too hard too quickly, conscious of Saudi Arabia’s traditionally slow pace of social change. They were critical in pushing for a ban on women’s participation in sports in schools to be lifted, for example, and took up a petition to discuss the issue of women driving.

The municipal council candidates, however, face high hurdles long before they can prove their worthiness in office. They’ll first need to be elected in a process entirely new to both them and the voters. “Some of the candidates are not prepared,” said Mayouf. “They don’t know what their main role will be on the councils or how they should set goals and plans.”

Once again, Baladi members say that they’ll be able to push only so far without Saudi leaders stepping in. Just as it took politics to grant women the right to vote, it may take a government decision to ensure female candidates get a chance. One-third of the seats on the municipal councils are appointed by the government, which would give officials the chance to appoint women to the post if none are elected directly.

Baladi will be watching closely to see whether King Salman will follow up on Abdullah’s commitments. So far, he has implemented the reforms of his predecessor — but has shown little indication that he’ll loosen any more restrictions on women. His first nine months at the helm have instead been dominated by carrying out a military campaign in Yemen, coping with falling oil prices, and reorganizing the Saudi bureaucracy.

In the meantime, the burden falls to women themselves. “I will not be surprised if no women were elected. I will be very happy if they are,” said Arrayed. “I will also think, ok, sisters, you’re there, prove that the decision [to include women] was right.”

First published in Foreign Policy.


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.