Tight social restrictions entail the female candidates running for public office for the first time have had to be creative with communication
For the last few days, Rasha Hefzis team has been tempting people with kebabs, candyfloss and popcorn to visit her neighborhood campaign tent in Jeddah. It is not easy get the vote out for Saudi Arabias municipal elections and she is predicting a tight race with the emphasis placed on local issues.
Hefzi, 38, is a well-known businesswoman, but Saturdays poll for local council seats is the first time Saudi girls have been eligible to stand for public office or to election. It is an eye-catching moment in a deep conservative country where women are not allowed to drive and required to comply with male guardianship laws and other forms of discrimination.
Everyone is talking about women participation, but its not just about that its about civic engagement, Hefzi told. Her campaign motto is We has already begun and we will continue. It adorns a highly professional profile on Twitter and other social media, replete with stylish graphics and flattering endorsements of her commitment and energy.
Photographs of candidates both male and female are banned. Campaign appearances by girls mean speaking from behind a partition, having male relatives or colleagues represent them or snapchatting and tweeting to their constituents. TV is off limits.
Hefzi has been active in inundation relief and planning issues in her home township on the Red Sea coast, opposing male racism all the way. Some councillors refused to even meet a woman, but we pushed and they dedicated in, she told. It is difficult. Women have been segregated for years. Tycoons have their networks and know each other, so it is a challenge to convince men to vote for us. And Jeddah is liberal by Saudi standards.
The election is for 284 two municipal councils. The pledge to allow girls to take part was made by the late King Abdullah in response to the Arab spring. He also appointed girls to the Shura( consultative) council. Even fierce critics of the Al Saud are pleased that King Salman, a more conservative figure, dismissed objections from the hardline religion establishment.
In total 978 girls have registered as candidates. Yet strict restrictions remain. Anyone involved in the campaign to allow girls to drive has been disqualified, though without any explanation. Only one of them, Lujain al-Hathloul, had her decision reversed on appeal. Im back in the game! she tweeted on Wednesday.
Nassima al-Sada, an activist from Qatif in the Shia eastern province, remains banned but defiant. We need to change the style people think about girls, she said in an interview. If we want to improve things in this country we need men and women at all levels of decision-making.
Many people believe elections are just for show that the government is wants to demonstrate that there are reforms here. It doesnt matter what the government wants. What matters is how I can use this to change things. Globalisation and social media entail the whole world is connected. Change will happen. The only question is how long it will take.
Candidates have modest expectations about what they hope to achieve because the remit of the councils is limited to planning, developing and local services. Sensitive issues including the royal family and clerical influence are taboo.
Yes, it is a historic occasion, says Haifa al-Hababi, who teaches architecture in Riyadh and is running in the capitals fourth district. Her interests include recycling and pedestrian access issues which are vital, she says, in a country with alarming high levels of obesity and diabetes. But my motivating is not feminist. Its about being an elected person who wants to change things in my own city. It is about improving the quality of life.
It looks like an uphill conflict. We dont pay taxes here so people dont understand the idea of public service and how elections run, Hababi continues. If you get used to free services, after a while you dont see it as a service, you take it for awarded. Without oil we are a third world country. We are still learning.
Lama al-Suleiman, a British-educated biochemist and vice-chair of the Jeddah chamber of commerce, is fighting to win but acknowledges that she and all women remain at a serious drawback. The challenge in Saudi Arabia is tradition, she argues. People are not used to mixing genders. But whether girls are encompassed up or not is irrelevant. Having more women in the workplace is what makes a difference and that has improved a lot in the last two years.
We have reached a point where a lot of us believe we need to progress, irrespective of sharia law. Everyone wants to improve their living standards. Sulaimans campaign motto is Yes, we deserve it!
For all the novelty, voter enrollment indicates turnout is likely to be tiny, with simply 130,637 girls registered compared with 1,355, 840 men out of 20 million citizens. Hababis own mother and grandmother have not registered, she sighs.
Social restrictions have forced female candidates to be creative about communication. I talk to my neighbours about their problems then I upload videos and tweet them, then I put them on Telegram, laughs Hababi. I do everything on social media. I dont have time to meet people and this is the fastest and most effective way. We Arabs chat all the time. Im an action girl. I like to do what I have to do immediately.
Official Saudi media have been highlighting the elections and promoting involvement, but the workout does not seem popular: in one provincial township the unusual sight of election billboards triggered complaints that they pose hazards to pedestrians in strong winds. Apathy looks like a major factor.
Yes, it is a turning point and we have to rejoice, muses the Jeddah journalist Samar Fatany. But it will take time to have an impact. Not many people have much faith in the local councillors whether they are men or women. But girls will add new blood and there will be less corruption.
And people are put off by segregation and restrictions. They believe: Why should I bother? That is true of voters and candidates. Registration is difficult because you need to bring a lot of documents. They are not accustomed to voting and dont have a lot of faith in it. To a lot of people it feels like a waste of time.
Still, in the Saudi context, many believe even this modest step matters or may come to matter in the future. It is a historical day, observed the Emirati political scientist, Abdelkhaleq Abdullah. It will be enough even if one girl wins.
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