Saudi Arabia’s women participated in landmark municipal elections, as candidates and voters. But what impact will their involvement have?
By Khadeeja Balkhi
On the surface of it, the suffrage of Saudi women hits all the right notes: Gender, votes, power, emancipation. But given a closer look, the nation’s third municipal elections—the first in the Kingdom’s recent history that women can both vote and be voted into power—are not as they appear.
At the time of going to press, an estimated 20 female candidates were elected for the first time according to results released to the Associated Press on Sunday. Nearly 7,000 candidates were in the running for two thirds of over 3,000 council seats in 284 municipalities. Euphoria was mounting as men and women flew back to their homeland, simply to have their say. The government expanded the voting population size—now, the voting age included those 18 years and older, rather than 21 years—opening the door for greater youth participation in public affairs. Yet of the 21 million citizens eligible to cast their vote, 1.35 million men and 130,637 women were registered to vote at the elections on December 12. The limits to universal suffrage affect not just the women, but Saudi men as well. Combined, a total 0.07 percent of voting population has registered to vote. With less than 1 percent of the voting population taking part, who were these elections meant for? Looking past the post-election euphoria, what could this low turnout be indicative of? The real figure, however, is likely to be much higher in a nation of more than 18 million citizens.
The Gender Lens: Frustration With the Cliché Abounds
“There is more to the country than gender issues,” said Sheikha Alsudairy, an investment banker with degrees in economics, politics and a masters in psychology from New York University, who now works for the women’s group, Al Nahda as its chief projects officer. The organization’s goal for now is not getting women elected to office. It crafted a witty, nuanced voter-drive campaign focused on three elements: the meaning of citizenship; the role of the municipality councils and voting technicalities, said Alsudairy. “We’re working to get as many people involved in their community as possible.” The organization has organically emerged as one of key channels to community engagers around these elections.
As voting day neared, Al Nahda’s focus was on reminding citizens to “vote in the most responsible way possible.” Responsible voting, Alsudairy explained, entailed researched, merit-based voting: casting a vote for the candidate whose values and vision for the neighborhood were closest to oneself—not just a relative, for example. That’s where the gender-neutral focus, which elides the elephant in the room of discrimination, comes in.
The toughest priorities at the municipal level are the same for men and women, said Rasha Hefzi, a candidate from Jeddah. “The public cares about safety, about having a clean neighborhood and environment, about urban development,” she said.
Others spoke of their exasperation at the airtime given to the right of women to drive or how their attire is far out of sync with how Saudi Arabia’s women truly feel—disproportionate to its importance to the women who actually call Saudi Arabia home.
A Civic Education
But the success of elections are already curtailed by its potential efficacy. “Elections are a really new concept here,” said Sara—not her real name—a Jeddah-based Saudi woman who works as a marketing director at a global appliances firm. “The general public doesn’t take the elections very seriously—they go more to help a friend get elected to office,” said Sara, who was educated in Canada and the U.K.
Sara, 36, felt the low turnout points to a need for a more informed electorate—especially to draw in the youth who may not understand the vote’s relevance to their lives. She herself hasn’t registered to vote and has little interest in, or knowledge of, who is running from her municipality—among the most influential in Jeddah.
“Most people are not aware of the importance of citizens’ role in public decision making,” said Hefzi. This is precisely the knowledge gap Al Nahda has been tackling. With a diverse, rich history of women’s empowerment since it was founded in 1962, Al Nahda is now working on empowering both genders via this voter education campaign. It kicked off its work by training 125 all-women volunteer trainers in May, with the intention of spearheading community engagement.
During the brief voter registration period from mid-August to mid-September 2015, Al Nahda’s trainers reached out to the public using a range of tactics. Some efforts included grassroots workshops with women’s groups, as well as visible booths in malls. Their drive included an online media campaign, outdoor billboards and branded cabs.
The organization’s outreach was concentrated in the capital, Riyadh, where it is based. The trainers reached over 6,000 people directly. The organization’s hashtag went viral and was used 17 million times during the campaign. While it’s early for analytics around the impact of Al Nahda’s campaign, “given the large number of views to our YouTube videos—over 700,000 views to date—and the active participation we have seen from citizens, I believe we’ve had an impact on the quality of the conversation and getting more citizens interested in the council,” Alsudairy said.
“It’s not been a haphazard effort,” said Wiam Hasanain, a soft spoken, well-balanced Berkeley graduate who is a catalyst for social change. Hasanain is also a partner at Saudi boutique consultancy, Aboab & Co. with Al Nahda being one of these groups.
New Routes for Participation
“Certain groups had been entrusted with the education and awareness campaign to increase voter turnout,” said Hasanain.
“The women standing for office have already been actively contributing to their community,” Hasanain said. “It’s not a leap for the unknown person to gain stardom or fame,” she said. “It’s to positively channel and scale existing efforts. As opposed to community leaders contributing towards their community alone, now they can contribute to their district, to the entire city. The locus of control is wider than it was initially,” Hasanain said.
Candidate Hefzi’s thoughts echo the same sentiment. “I’ve been working with the previous councils since 2007, first as a volunteer, then as an active citizen,” she said. “Me entering the council, or running for office, is just a step in the way of trying to formalize my work.” Hefzi is also strategizing a collaborative body, akin to a “network of councils that will align with the municipality council.
“We are hoping to establish a better connection between the council and the neighborhood,” she said. In addition to managing the usual emergency files, she also plans to establish social media platforms and a more robust follow up policy between all parties: not just the mayor and the governor but also companies, ministries and others. The latter, Hefzi believes, is an inherent strength women will bring to the table.
The former will serve as a tool in bridging a gap she sees: “Citizens need to have more insights and input into the plans, the report, the new projects their council is approving.” Just as one would expect elsewhere in the world, Hefzi’s vote drive saw her talking with strangers about her campaign—in itself an unusual practice in the kingdom and persuading families to get on board.
The Math That Won’t Add Up
While no one seems to know exactly what they’ll be, salaries for these elected council members are expected to be low—it’s not a motivating factor for candidates. Campaigning costs, on the other hand, can run quite high—as is the case across the world. While candidate license only costs between SR 50–500 ($1–133), the average campaign costs SR 600,000 ($160,000).
Critics cite these high costs as a source of concern, particularly in a grassroots-level election where the bar set for candidate selection is not always very high. How, critics argue, are candidates then to ‘recover’ the investment they made in their election campaigns, in strict monetary terms—even if one were to factor in community uplift as the key motivating factor for all candidates?
This, critics say, historically tends to open the door to corruption. Instead of elections and all the unnecessary costs campaigning entails, some suggest a mix of nomination-based and competitive merit-based corporate style recruitment to bring the right people into the council office, for the right reasons.
Staving Off Disappointment
While Hefzi agrees that ignorance is among key causes for the low turnout, she believes another primary reason may be that people had really high expectations from the first round of council elections in 2005—and again in 2011.
Yet given the council members’ preoccupation with emergencies files, such as floods, the voters felt let down both times since council members “had no time to connect with the people,” or “share their achievements or obstacles,” she said. “So the voters lost trust. Also, the registration process this year was not that simple, there were many obstacles,” Hefzi offered, as another reason that kept the turnout low.
“The general mood is wait and see,” said Samar Fatany, columnist at the Saudi Gazette, the national newspaper. “We remain optimistic, but we do have our skeptics as well. There’s a lot of enthusiasm, but like other times when we were disappointed we don’t want to raise our hopes very high—so that the disappointment will not be as strong,” she said.
Nevertheless, optimism is in the air—at least for those interested enough to stay abreast of electoral developments.
“When women come to the council they will bring new techniques,” Hefzi said. “They are more detail oriented. They really know how to follow up. They also bring other voices to the table, such as those of children.” That, essentially captures the gist of the global diversity inclusion debate, whether in the public space or in the private sector.
“It’s not only about women’s rights per say,” said Hasanain. “It’s about having a balanced perspective, the same way a woman’s perspective is brought into a board room.”
She also expressed intrigue that Saudi Arabia’s journey has taken a unique top-down direction: With women first being placed in the upper-most government body which advises the king, the Shura Council, akin to a parliament. In 2013, King Abdullah appointed women to constitute 20 percent of the 150-member body.
While these 30 women are still serving their four-year term on the Shura Council, women ran and voted for municipal-level elections—as promised by King Abdullah and delivered by the reigning King Salman.
Hopes from women’s inclusion range from giving the environment higher priority to having a safe place for kids to play—issues that mothers experience more closely, and that are “more likely to have light shed upon with women on-board,” Hasanain said.
Ayesha—not her real name—is an outspoken professor and South Asian mufti, or religious Islamic scholar. She isn’t shy to state what’s on the minds of the nation’s conservative contingent. For Saudi women, were these elections a case of “fixing what ain’t broke?” Despite its challenges and recently reported dissent within the ruling family, the Saudi government is seen as among the most stable in the region. Had the citizenry, both men and women, been feeling acute discontent, the registration turnout would have been greater than 0.07 percent, Ayesha argued.
Not to say that Saudi society doesn’t have its issues, she said. Just that judging by the participation rate in this third round of elections, this kind of political participation may not have been what the people asked for—or seemed to need. These elections, Ayesha said, were perhaps more of a nod to appease pressures the government has been facing—from diverse quarters. This, she feels, accounts for a general apathy amongst citizens.
Also, in classical Islamic doctrine, the Shura assembly is the only recommended governance method—as witnessed in early Islamic history—which, she points out seemed to be working for Saudi Arabia just fine.
And within the political leadership, the role of women cannot be denied, even by the most traditional of Muslim scholars. At the very least, for issues directly related to women such as divorce, it would be advisable for female citizens to be able to interact with women leaders. Ayesha believes that Saudi Arabia is already taken to be a model throughout the conservative Muslim world for its implementation of gender segregation that, she believes, Islam recommends. So when the Saudi government drives women’s inclusivity in public offices, conservative Muslims are assured that Islamic guidelines will not be systemically trespassed. It’s not a view held by all, however.
Concerted change is usually assumed to be for the better—but can also be for the worse. Saudi Arabia has its own identity—culturally and religiously—more so than other Muslim nations. It is the hub of the Muslim world, with the mosques in its cities Makkah and Madinah being the most sacred of Muslim lands.
If Ayesha’s concerns are correct, in the longer-term, the elections could mean a gradual scaling back of its Muslim identity—and not an empowered public.
A Victory Closer to Home
That would also partially explain why other issues seem more top of mind for the majority of Saudi women—and getting behind the wheel is not one of them. Among the leading obstacles to simpler, more empowered lives for women here has been the lack of access to male-only public offices to transact their daily affairs, such as for going to school, or sending their children to school or running their businesses.
But this is not a women-only issue, for it places a disproportionate burden on male family members who at present must carry out multiple household responsibilities. The amendment passed early this month was a meaningful step towards smoother societal living: divorced women and widows will no longer need a male guardian to conduct their transactions with the government.
Whereas before, as columnist Samar Fatany pointed out, this was a really “frustrating situation for women, having to beg an uncle or a brother,” to represent them in all-male offices for mundane government interactions such as permission to send their children to a particular school.
The credit for this amendment, Fatany said, goes to the Shura Council Committee headed by Princess Sara bint Faisal Al Saud, one of two royal women appointed to the Shura Council. Together with her committee, Princess Sara, really pushed to change this law, Fatany said. This high-level involvement by the Shura Council also gives this change in law more strength and credibility. And strength is precisely what many see in young Saudi women.