One small step ahead
In Saudi Arabia, first election where women can run is a sign of progress
• One candidate wants more recycling. A rival envisions community centres w- ith daycare. How about cre ating Western- style public libraries? asks another.
T- hese are hardly the rally ing cries of revolutionaries. But, in the ultraconservative context of Saudi Arabia, such appeals are breaking new ground:
T he y are coming f r om some of the more than 900 f emale candidates in t he kingdom’s first nationwide election in which women are able to run — and vote.
The balloting Saturday for municipal council seats across the kingdom — from Riyadh’s chaotic sprawl to oil- rich outposts — marks a c- autious step forward in a na tion where social change does not come easy. It must always pass muster through a ruling system that may be Westernallied, but still answers to a religious establishment very w- ary of bold moves, particu larly regarding the role of women.
W-omen still are not al lowed to drive. They must receive a male guardian’s permission to travel abroad alone.
They also face other daily reminders of Saudi Arabia’s strict brand of Islam and the state’s punishing stance against any open dissent.
“Saudi Arabia has done a great PR job in selling these elections as part of muchtouted reforms,” said Ali alAhmed, director of the Instit- ute for Gulf Affairs, a Wash ington- based political affairs group.
“The reality is that not much changes.”
Yet to dismiss the elections as mere window dressing a- lso fails to grasp their im portance.
T-rue, the municipal councils have limited powers — much more about, say, traffic lights and sidewalks than big- picture issues. Still, opening even this one path f- or women’s political en gagement redefines Saudi citizenship at a time of huge challenges, including the Saudi- led war against rebels in Yemen and slumping oil prices that have thinned the kingdom’s lifeblood.
“Someone has to pave the way,” said Karema Bokhary, a 50- year- old science teacher, who has two daughters of voting age — a 20- year- old studying law and an 18- yearold in pre- med.
“I’ m doing this for my d- aughters. They are witness in ga new way to bea Saudi woman. It says: Stand up; make your voice heard.”
This is also an indirect message for Saudi’s King Salman, who inherited the reforms when he took power nearly a year ago. His late brother, King Abdullah, brought a series of small-but- significant social shifts f-or women, including set ting the upcoming election rules in motion years ago. The 150- seat Shura Council, an appointed advisory body, now includes 30 women. King Abdullah also opened the country’s first mixedgender university.
But there are lines that cannot be crossed — and are g-uarded by the powerful Islamic clerics who give the House of Saud legitimacy to rule.
A- t least two women activ i sts — i ncluding a human rights campaigner — were a- mong the dozens of candi dates banned from the ballots. All told, women account for about one in seven of the n- early 7,000 hopefuls seek ing about 3,100 council seats. An even smaller percentage of women registered to cast b- allots: 130,637 women, com pared with 1.35 million men, election officials said.
Even so, some hardliners are appalled.
“- Men only!” cried a con servative imam, Abdulaziz Alfawzan, in a video posted o- nline that includes warn i- ngs that the election is an other step to import Western values.
The candidate Bokhary, however, said she was braced f- or significantly more push back. “We expected more men to try to stand in our way,” she said. “A few have grumbled. But the worst didn’t happen. That says something.”
Instead, she held a few women- only forums ( mixedgender campaigning is banned) and hit social media, recruiting some ex- students t- o keep her Twitter and Face book pages fresh.
Bokhary also put together a- simple campaign flyer out l ining her standout issue: seeking corporate sponsors f- or neighbourhood commun ity centres for women that would include daycare and gyms.
“But really I’m trying to tell women not to sit back,” she said. “Get involved. Move your butts. Do something.”
A- round the corner in cen t ral Riyadh, a rival plots her last- minute push in the crowded District 4 f i eld: more than 50 candidates, about half of them women, are vying for two s e at s . Architecture professor Haifa Alhababi roams the streets and posts Snapchat images of what bugs her.
T his could be garbage bins full of recyclable items i- n a city with no serious re cycling effort. Or maybe the p- oor road planning that con tributes to Riyadh’s nearly round- the- clock traffic jams.
“Even if I don’t win the election, I still win,” she said, sitting in a room that i ncludes her collection of shot glasses from around the world: the Hard Rock Café in Seattle; the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas; Germany; Rome.
“The reason is that I will annoy whomever wins to t hink about better urban planning,” said Alhababi, 37, who studied in Britain and was raised for several years in Austin, Tex.
“This is just the beginning. Mark my words.”
The college- age women she teaches, however, tend to look at her excitement as slightly misplaced. Many younger women — the Saudi version of millennials — often view the election as less of a landmark and more of an acknowledgment that the country is still the outlier on women’s rights even among t radition- minded Persian Gulf neighbours.
“I tell them this,” Alhababi s- aid. “This is a young coun try. 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.”
Out in an eastern suburb, meanwhile, Shaikha al-Khelaiwi keeps two smart phones going non- stop. Her plans are ambitious: calling f- or neighbourhood trans formations that include a-menities such as play g- rounds, preschools and pub lic libraries.
Election rules prohibit any billboards or images of the candidates — men or women. But Khelaiwi, who wears the full Islamic coverings that show only her eyes, tried a loophole. She changed her Twitter profile photo to show an Egyptian actress with a smouldering look.
“He r eyes looked like mine,” said Khelaiwi, 38, who returned to Saudi Arabia last year after more than decade working for the Saudi embassy in London.
She got a call the other day from an election official demanding she remove the photo. She replaced it with a s- hot of her campaign litera ture.
“OK, so I crossed a line,” she said .“Doesn’ t matter. I’m already famous on social media. Check this out.”
She sighed when her phone was slow opening a YouTube link of an interview with Japanese television.
“- I have too many apps go ing,” she laughed. “Look.”
One Twitter account opened three days has more than 700 followers. Another has close to 1,000.
“I started a third one just a couple of hours ago,” she said.
I-t already had 90 follow ers.
I’m trying to tell women not to sit back. Get involved. Move your butts ‘We expected more men to try to stand in our way. A few have grumbled. But the worst didn’t happen.’ — Candidate Karema Bokhary