JEDDAH/RIYADH: In a watershed moment for the Kingdom, hundreds of thousands of men and women will today for the first time in the country’s history participate together in an election for public office.
A reported 1.48 million citizens, comprising 1.35 million men and 130,637 women, are registered to vote. Men and women will have separate voting stations. There are 6,917 candidates, of which there are 979 women, standing for 3,159 places on 284 councils, which should not exceed 30 members each
There were 791,411 voters in the first elections and 405,783 in the second one. The third municipal elections were approved in a royal decree last year and will see two-thirds of the councils, or 2,106 elected, and one third appointed by the minister of municipal and rural affairs. The results are expected to be announced on Sunday.
These elections have garnered attention abroad from newspapers in the United States and the United Kingdom, and from the normally highly critical Middle East office of Human Rights Watch.
“Voting and running for the municipal council elections is a landmark achievement for Saudi women,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch. She urged the government to remove other barriers that may be holding back women’s advancement, according to a report on the organization’s website.
There has been a similar positive response elsewhere, including an article published in the Washington Post on Dec. 9, stating that the elections, despite criticism locally and abroad about certain aspects, was “breaking new ground.”
It quoted several women candidates as saying they wanted to make a difference, with one wanting more recycling, another seeking community centers with day care, and a third the possibility of “Western-style” public libraries.
“Someone has to pave the way,” said Karema Bokhary, a 50-year-old science teacher who has two daughters of voting age: one, 20, studying law and an 18-year-old in pre-med. “I’m doing this for my daughters. They are witnessing a new way to be a Saudi woman. It says: ‘Stand up; make your voice heard,’” she was quoted as saying by the newspaper.
There was praise by the newspaper for Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman for taking forward the social shifts for women in the country initiated by the late King Abdullah, which included setting up the municipal elections, and establishing the 150-member Shoura Council with 30 women.
Architecture professor Haifa Alhababi was quoted as saying that she has been roaming Riyadh’s streets posting Snapchat images of what concerns her, which include garbage bins with items that could be recycled, and better road planning to ease the city’s notorious traffic congestion.
“Even if I don’t win the election, I still win,” she said, sitting in a room with memorabilia from her travels to Seattle, Las Vegas, Germany and Rome. “The reason is that I will annoy whomever wins to think about better urban planning,” said Alhababi, 37, who studied in Britain and was raised for several years in Austin.
“This is just the beginning. Mark my words.”
She said that she has been telling her students that the elections is marking a change in Saudi Arabia. “I tell them this,” Alhababi said. “This is a young country. It may seem developed because of the oil money. But it’s really just finding its way. This election is another step — even if a baby step — for women. Don’t discount it.”
In a report by The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom, Alhababi is quoted as saying she is running in the capital’s fourth district. “Yes, this election is a historic occasion,” she said, although she thinks that for her it looks like an uphill struggle. “We don’t pay taxes here so people don’t understand the idea of public service and how elections work.”
She added that “if you get used to free services, after a while you don’t see it as a service, you take it for granted.” Her interests include recycling and pedestrian access— issues which are vital, she said, in a country with alarming levels of obesity and diabetes.
“But my motivation is not feminist. It’s about being an elected person who wants to change things in my own city. It’s about improving the quality of life,” she was quoted as saying.
A Jeddah candidate quoted by the newspaper, 38-year-old Rasha Hefzi, reportedly visited neighborhoods, tempting people with kebabs, candy floss and popcorn to visit her campaign tent. “Everyone is talking about women’s participation, but it’s not just about that— it’s about civic engagement,” said Hefzi, a well-known businesswoman.
Lama Al-Suleiman, a British-educated biochemist and vice chair of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said she was fighting to win but acknowledged that she and all women remain at a serious disadvantage.
“The challenge in Saudi Arabia is tradition,” she said. “People are not used to mixing genders. But whether women are covered up or not is irrelevant. Having more women in the workplace is what makes the difference,” she was quoted as saying by the newspaper.
There have reportedly also been other challenges for inexperienced women candidates, who have been fleeced by people charging them between SR5,000 and SR7,000 for assisting in their campaigns.
Several women were quoted as saying by a local newspaper that they had hired these people because they were unaware that the rules did not allow for it. They put this down to their inexperience in dealing with the media and the advertising industry.
The report quoted local officials saying that the elections have been set up to prevent candidates from getting involved in various fraudulent activities such as collusion to get votes. Voters have only been allowed to register in areas where they live, with voting for only one candidate, the sources said.
There would also be strict monitoring of all election stations for any violations. If offenses occur, these are taken up by officials and then passed on to a disciplinary committee for verification and action. Complainants can also file lawsuits through the courts.
According to reports, there are 104,000 voters registered in Madinah, with places open on 19 municipal councils in the region. In Tabuk region, there are 64,346 registered voters, with 143 male candidates and 48 female candidates and 46 polling stations.
There are 1,250 candidates sta nding for places on Riyadh’s municipal councils, of which 240, or 19 percent, are women. There were reportedly 110 men and women candidates barred from the contest, while 40 withdrew voluntarily.