Historic Saudi poll ‘a step towards gender equality’

Al Jazeera speaks to women ahead of local polls that include candidates and voters from both genders for the first time.

saudi women elections
Women's participation in the polls, the third of their kind in the oil-rich Gulf country, was decreed in 2011 by King Abdullah [AFP]

For the first time in Saudi Arabia, women are allowed to run as candidates and cast their votes in local elections.

The municipal polls will open at 8am on Saturday and close at 5pm, local time (5am-2pm GMT).

Two-thirds of seats at the kingdom’s 284 councils are up for grabs, with more than 1,000 female candidates in the running, compared with more than 6,000 men.

READ MORE: Saudi women begin campaigning in polls for first time

Some 100,000 women have registered to vote, meanwhile, compared with more than 400,000 men.

First results are expected towards the end of the day. Final results will come a month later as the process allows for the electorate to raise objections in that period.

Speaking to Al Jazeera on Friday hours before polls opened, several women said they felt excited and positive that women are participating, with the hope that society as a whole would benefit from more diversity in public affairs leadership.

Here are some of their views:

Lama Al-Sulaiman, candidate in Jeddah

Of course we’re excited; it’s the first time we’re participating. If I win, I’m going to be happy and then I’m going to continue my work. For 10 years, I’ve worked on women’s issues and employment, so when this opportunity came along and I had the experience, I thought, why not? I don’t think it [women’s involvement] will change things, but it’s another push forward. It’s a wheel that has been rolling and this is another achievement, a kind of progression.

Women here are doctors and engineers – it’s not like women aren’t there. The international media sometimes has narrow views; they only report the bad stories. We have them, we have weaknesses and every citizen goes through challenges – those shouldn’t be belittled. But to think that 50 percent of the population is going through those challenges is also ridiculous.

Lama Al-Sulaiman
Lama Al-Sulaiman

When I read some things, it sounds like men don’t allow women to mix with them. But we did a poll recently of 3,000 participants, asking men and women if they want segregation in the workplace. Fifty-two percent said they preferred to work in a segregated environment, 42 percent said they don’t mind as long as there were segregated spaces in the office.

I am a person who is extremely tolerant and I respect the opinion of everyone, including the ultra-conservatives. Pushing people to change their habits takes a long time, it doesn’t happen through shock doctrines or pressure. More women in the workforce is going to reduce their [ultra-conservatives’] fears of the unknown.

More women need to participate, there’s an economic need for that. But I don’t like when we push people into environments they are not used to. I respect the ultra-conservatives. If we win, I hope they work with us. I’ve worked with such people before in the chamber of commerce and it’s been enlightening to have dialogue with them. That’s when fears are reduced, the fighting and aggression declines.

Manal Faisal al-Sharif, banned candidate in Jeddah

I think I was banned because people complained that I was using the media to promote my campaign. But I wasn’t. I simply tried to give women information about how to vote, the process. I tried to raise awareness about the vote. I wanted to encourage them to go to the centres with the correct papers. I guess someone got angry and made formal complaints.

Manal Faisal al-Sharif
Manal Faisal al-Sharif

In any case, I am still very excited about the elections. I’m proud of my colleagues, neighbours and friends. I’m on WhatsApp groups with women and there is a real sense of solidarity. Some are like training centres for how to go and vote and participate. It’s a big step towards equality.

Tomorrow, I will vote for a female candidate because I believe she has a good programme. She will help the area. But my biggest fear is that no women at all will be elected.

Saudi Arabia does have very conservative segments of society, but we have people in the middle. And I think those that encourage women are in the majority.

Women can effect change, and I think by having women in these positions will build bridges with the people who hold ultra-conservative views.

Mona abu Suliman, media personality and consultant in Riyadh

Even if women don’t win tomorrow, just going through this process was really important. Recognising women’s votes in decision making is a step towards equality.

Mona abu Suliman
Mona abu Suliman

There are people who see women voting and running in the election as another step towards westernisation. They dislike seeing women in public-facing roles. But I don’t think they are in the majority. The majority is either neutral or accepting.

Those who are against it basically fear we will turn out like the United States, with women and men mixing in every aspect of life.

On the whole though, given what’s on Twitter, on TV, what friends say, I think there is a real delight that women are part of this and that women might win.

Unnamed Riyadh-based candidate

Of course we’re happy. This inclusion was the wish of [the late] King Abdullah [bin Aziz] and [ruler] King Salman [bin Aziz]. It was their wish to have women in the right place, and it means a lot.

Participation means a lot for both men and women. The achievement of this is that we will be developing what has already been started – we want to our work to reach the people in the community and improve their situation.

I don’t want to say anything about critics. All over the world, there are people for and against things. I don’t want to attack anyone. I want things to be smooth and peaceful.

Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter:  @anealla

Source: Al Jazeera