February 8, 2016

Setting the Agenda: Reflections of Saudi Women on the Campaign Trail

A Saudi woman arrives at a polling station to vote for the municipal elections on December 12, 2015 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Jordan Pix/ Getty Images)

On December 12, 2015, Saudi Arabia held its third round of municipal elections. The elections were the first in which women could vote and run for positions in the Municipal Council. Over 900 women registered to run as candidates and 21 women won seats in the historic election. The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington spoke with three young women who ran in the elections to discuss their motivation to run, their aspirations as councilwomen, the challenges they faced, and their views on the importance of these elections.

Loujain al-Hathloul

Loujain al-Hathloul

Loujain al-Hathloul registered to run for a seat in Riyadh. She is a quality assurance coordinator and a long-time women’s rights activist, and has campaigned for women’s right to drive. In 2014, al-Hathloul drove to the Saudi border with the United Arab Emirates in an attempt to defy the driving ban on women in the kingdom. She was arrested, detained for over two months, and charged with terrorism. The government-approved candidate list, released just two weeks before the day of the vote, did not include her name. Just days after the release of the list, al-Hathloul won an appeal and was assured verbally by the appeals council that her name would appear on the ballot – it did not.

Maysa al-Mani

Maysa al-Mani

Maysa al-Mani ran a campaign in Riyadh’s fourth district. She is a government consultant who has worked on Saudi Arabian municipal governance. She has been active in the women’s driving campaign and has campaigned for voting rights for women in municipal elections since 2011.

Lobna al-Ribidi ran in Buraidah in Qassim. She has a master’s degree in linguistics, is a teaching assistant at Qassim University, a freelance translator, and an aspiring linguist. Lobna ran a blog during the campaigning window to distribute her electoral program and inform voters of the election process.

AGSIW: Why did you decide to run in the elections and what issues did you campaign for?

Loujain al-Hathloul: My plan was to focus on creating community centers around my district. Since my district, compared to other districts in Riyadh, is decent in terms of construction, infrastructure, organization. We don’t have problems [related to] the physical aspect of the district. The problem is that it is very dead; you don’t see people on the streets, in parks, you don’t have social interactions, neighbors don’t know each other. We don’t use any of the facilities in the neighborhood like mosques or schools. Whenever the prayer is done, the mosque locks its doors, which is too bad because it could be used for other things: for youth to gather, have workshops, or any activities that would allow members of society to interact and create a social environment. I was mainly focused on this, especially in the schools since we have a lot of private schools with great facilities that are used once or twice a year. It is very sad to see, they are empty and not used.

Maysa al-Mani: My main goal in participating was not to win, but to show the government that if you allow women to participate in any public arena, women will be there. I wanted to be an added number, to show women are there, especially young women. My campaign started virtually – Twitter was the main domain. I wanted to increase the level of communication between the residents of the district and the Majlis al-Baladi. I wanted to make a website for my district for citizens to send photos and recommendations, or anything related to the municipalities’ work or even violations. My slogan was “as-sukan shuraka al-tanmiya” (“citizens are partners in development”). I did not only want to focus on the accountability of the elected members, but also the people – to tell them, “you have a big role to play.” The other thing I wanted was to incentivize people to plant more trees, and for the municipality to build more recreational areas, like parks. There are only a few parks where people practice sports and children play, so I wanted to expand these and to create more running tracks. I wanted to do this to increase the interaction and communication between people, but it was also about encouraging sports and activity. Saudi is one of the countries with the highest rates of diabetes and obesity issues. With more of these recreational centers, people will be encouraged to exercise more.

Lobna al-Ribidi: When the election was first announced, I checked all the regulations to ensure that I was a perfect fit before I told anyone. A week before the candidates’ registration, I talked to my family. I wasn’t sure about their reaction so I started it as joke. “Apply right away!” my mother said. That was what got me to be the third candidate in the registration office. At the time I was juggling too many responsibilities, working as teacher assistant in Qassim University and writing my master’s dissertation in applied linguistics. But I couldn’t miss the opportunity to be one of the very first females to run in Saudi Arabia. Besides my passion for the city, I wanted to represent the younger generation – not only women. My biggest concern was the infrastructure of the city. The massive floods that happened days before the campaigning assured me that this was the right cause. I also aimed to establish effective communication between the Municipal Council and citizens, expanding the residential areas to control the increased housing prices, providing free public gyms for both females and males, and maintaining and appreciating the identity and true soul of the city.

Maysa al-Mani’s campaign video, which was not made public until after the elections, due to campaign regulations.

AGSIW: What challenges did you face as a first-time candidate?  

Loujain al-Hathloul: Well, the government removed me from the final list of approved nominees without notice. I filed an objection the next day, and four days later I received a response, saying that the local council had no objection to my candidacy and that the council of appeals contacted the special authority to request documented proof that I wasn’t qualified. After three days, the appeals council decided to reinstate me because they didn’t have anything against me running. On December 10, my name was not yet on the website, but they told me verbally I would appear on the paper ballot. I trusted that because I had legal documents to back me up. I went to the voting centers on the election day. My name wasn’t on the list. The employee there said that when they called the local council, they were told that I had already been informed about their decision to not bring me back. I thought, “How can this be when I have legal documentation, and I had checked with them two days before and they promised to put my name on the ballot?” Now I am suing the local council and the general council of the elections, since they did not apply the court order of reinstating me to the ballot list of candidates. I am also filing cases in the board of grievances, the commission of anti-corruption, and requesting an administrative investigation.

Loubna al-Ribidi: The regulations on campaigning in general were not clear enough to the candidates, which eventually caused trouble. When it came to funding, at first there was no clear ban on sponsorships by companies or businessmen, but later on they told us that if we won, a detailed report of all the campaign funds should be submitted and that the campaign had to be fully funded from personal resources.

Maysa al-Mani: Ambiguity was a huge issue. I was not clear on what to do or where to go for things. The women who worked at the municipalities were great, but often they didn’t have answers and they had to ask their male colleagues for clarification on rules. There were also some frustrating rumors that we had to contend with; a national newspaper, al-Watan, ran a news piece stating that any woman running could not talk to men to get their vote, and if she did she would be disqualified and pay a large fine. The story suggested that if you went to personally convince a man to vote for you, you would be disqualified – but later this turned out to be a rumor. Also, I had a YouTube video made early on of me talking about the issues that I wanted to [address]. It was a really short video but I was showing my face, and there was a possibility of getting disqualified because of that so I decided not to publish it. I really wanted to do more than a tent with dinner. Also, I wanted a campaign and more dialogue, but one of the rules was that you could not go to universities to campaign. We thought this was rather counterintuitive because you want to encourage young people to vote or to participate… the number of participants was extremely low. Not being able to go to universities and public areas to reach out to people was a difficulty. In general, reaching people was difficult. You had two choices: online or with rented tents/halls, which had to be segregated.

AGSIW: What do you think the election of women to the council can do for the overall status of women in Saudi Arabia?

Lobna al-Ribidi: No women won in my city, Buraidah. This city is known to be religiously strict and society is thought to be unwilling to accept women as equals to men in the Municipal Council. But looking at the big picture, this is untrue. The number of female candidates was relatively high compared to other regions. Most of the female candidates came from and were supported by the largest and most respected families in the city, which means that in one way or another, there is real public ovation toward women’s participation.

Loujain al-Hathloul: Women’s empowerment is what women can gain from these elections. This was a great opportunity for women to be socially and politically responsible, and equal to men in that sense. It is the first experience we have in which all the rules are equal between men and women. There is not a single paragraph in which they are different. If you participate as a woman, you can — with men — address the disadvantages that occur. With women’s participation, the opinions will diversify and develop. Even if this is taking place on a small scale, we need it as a first step. We do not want to elect the Shura Council tomorrow and… look: When I wrote on Twitter that I was going to participate, the majority of my Twitter followers did not know the difference between a voter and a candidate. And they did not understand the concept of voting for your own district. The concepts of elections, of democracy, of nominating someone, etc., are new. Sure, this is all happening on a small scale, but we need to learn on a smaller scale before we are ready to make important decisions as a people.

Maysa al-Mani: When women won, it shocked a lot of people in a good way, especially in underdeveloped areas. To have women winning there is huge. I think it gave people a reference: to say yes we have women in Majlis as-Shura, we have women in in the Municipal Council, and hopefully we can have women as ministers and even judges. I love to see women in decision-making positions. Even if the municipality is a tiny entity, it is a body that makes decisions and is representative of people, men and women. Having women as part of these elections and winning, already broke a lot of the stigma around women. Now in some councils, they have separate rooms for the women with cameras (for them to communicate with the male counselors). This recently happened in Jeddah, and Representatives Rasha Hefzi and Lama Suleiman fought it and had serious discussions over the separation. This is extremely healthy. Yes, let’s push the men! I’m really happy with the struggle that is happening for women to get their seats next to men. I hope that all women representatives, if they want it, know that they have the right to sit next to the men.

Samyah Alfoory is a contributor for Millennial Gulf and can be reached at samyah.alfoory@agsiw.org.