About 50 years ago, a young girl shocked her conservative Saudi neighbourhood when she showed two boys how to ride a bike. They stared at her with a confused daze as she rode the bike down the street.
Today, that little girl is all grown up and has shocked her neighbourhood – and the rest of her country – as she attempts to become the first Saudi-American woman to win political office in the US.
“My look on life has always shocked people in my country,” says Ferial Masry, who is running for the 37th district of the California Assembly, an assembly seat which represents Ventura County and parts of Los Angeles County.
“All my life, I was interested in social change,” Masry, also a teacher of American History and government at Cleveland High School in Los Angeles, tells Aljazeera.net. “I always had it in me to do something that may be different that can affect my community.”
Against the odds
Masry filed her candidacy registration papers late, and ended up running as a write-in candidate in March 2004 for the Democratic primary election and was able to get enough votes making it to the general election where her name will appear on the ballot this November.
“I barely had enough money to run a campaign,” she says, citing her opponent Audra Strickland, conservative Republican candidate and wife of the incumbent Assembly person Tony Strickland, who has spent nearly half a million dollars with two months left in the campaign.
Masry (C), an active Democrat,
Masry says if she wins her grassroots campaign will certainly be a case study for the entire nation.
The US constitution is just a tiny little document with so much power, she says. Masry believes with such powers citizens should feel responsible to become more involved in the political process, whether one votes or runs for office.
Win or lose, Masry says her running for a political seat will not only bring awareness to important issues in her community, but it will also have an impact on women in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab world.
When she was only nine, her mother sent her and her sisters to be educated at the American Boarding School for Girls in Cairo, Egypt.
Up to that point, the only schooling Masry had had was at the local Kutab in Makka, a place where children were taught how to read and learn the Quran.
Masry’s favourite subject in school was history. “The more we know it and study history, the more we can learn from it to be better people and [a] better society,” Masry tells Aljazeera.net. “History brings us close to our roots.”
After earning a bachelor of arts degree in journalism at Cairo University and living in England and Nigeria, Masry moved with her husband Waleed to Southern California, a place she first fell in love with while vacationing.
Waleed, born in Nigeria to a Lebanese father and Armenian mother, did not like the idea of moving to America, “but he also didn’t mind it”, Masry says. “I decided on it because I knew it was the place to pursue the future.”
She counts on her family for
In 1979, they did just that, opening a small photograph-processing business, and becoming US citizens three years later.
During that time, Masry pursued and earned a master’s degree in school administration at California Lutheran University.
Today, Waleed works as a civilian electrical engineer in the US army.
On the issues
“She’s a smart woman because she brings the best of both worlds,” says Zella Brown, 80, of Thousand Oaks, a city in the district Masry is running in.
“Her background is tremendous and I enjoy learning more and more about her.”
Brown has been a Democrat since she first registered to vote, and believes Masry brings forward not only Democratic principals to the table, but as well ideas and values most politicians do not have that may help her campaign.
One of Masry’s biggest concerns, especially as a teacher in the Los Angeles Public Unified School District, is how public education is being handled.
She ran on a shoestring budget in
One of California’s biggest crises is that its educational system is lagging behind other states’ public school systems. It is a struggle trying to balance a budget deficit without hurting the public school system.
“The beauty of [America’s] system is that you can be educated until the day you die,” Masry says. “But the unfortunate thing is the politicians have a hold of our education, and the first thing I would try to do is to take education out of the hands of the politicians.”
Masry stands firm on the issue of not hurting public schools’ budgets when trying to balance the states’ budget.
“As a high school teacher, I stand for a good public education, which should be a normal thing and not a privilege,” Masry says.
America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is considered a controversial one among some Americans, especially since it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the September 11 attacks were Saudi-born.
With America’s ever-growing efforts to combat “terrorism”, stereotypes of Arabs have also been growing in the minds of some Americans.
“There is a stereotype [about Arabs], but it all depends on how you receive it,” Masry says. “Stereotypes about Arabs and anyone else disgust me, yes, but I do not and will not allow it to hurt me. We [Arabs] are a people with a proud heritage.
The Saudi-born Masry wants Arab
“Stereotypes may even come from your own community,” says Omar Masry, the candidate’s oldest of three children.
Unfortunately, Omar says, some Arabs automatically assume that because his mother is Saudi Arabian, she is rich, and so they will not donate money to her campaign.
Omar is very hopeful his mother will win, despite the fact the district she is running in is predominantly Republican. “[My mother] is able to bridge differences,” Omar says. “She is not your average white bread Ryan Seacrest look-a-like wannabe politician who cannot relate to average Americans.”
Creating social change
Masry has certainly attracted much attention since her determination to run for the assembly started this year.
“People like me because I am funny and not threatening, but at the same time I’m very serious when it comes to seeing things change for [the] good,” she says.
“Unfortunately, women in [the Arab] culture feel oppressed and blame the culture,” she says. “Part of the problem is not our culture, but the woman herself.”
She hopes women in the Arab world will stand up and believe in themselves and go against any force that oppresses them.
“Unless you take yourself seriously, know you can have an effect on your community and respect yourself and believe in yourself first, no one else will believe in you,” she says.