As Women Vote In Saudi Arabia For First Time Tomorrow, An American Living There Breaks Down What It Actually Means For Progress

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Saudi women walk inside the Faysalia shopping centre in Riyadh
GenderPoliticsWomen's Rights 1 Comment

By Nicole Hunter-Mostafa – Back in September, when I first heard that Saudi women were registering to vote in the municipal elections that are taking place tomorrow, I was pleased, but not too terribly excited. After all, having grown up in a country (the United States) where national elections were what got the most attention, the idea that women in Saudi Arabia were going to be voting on how to address the local “municipality agenda” wasn’t tremendously thrilling to me. I mean, I recognized it as a hugely important milestone – the first elections in the country’s history in which women will be casting ballots and running for municipal seats – but I felt something like a traitor to my own feminism when I admitted to myself that I didn’t feel particularly stirred to celebrate it far and wide.

I just couldn’t help it, especially considering the answer I got when I asked my husband, “Well, what exactly is on the municipality agenda in Riyadh?” He replied, “I have no clue.” As it turns out, there isn’t much easily accessible information out there about what exactly Saudis will be voting on, and of course, it varies widely from municipality to municipality, especially since there are no national elections. I’ve seen no candidate signs around Riyadh, no campaign ads on TV. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t even know the elections were about to happen if I didn’t consume Western media, which are (understandably) widely reporting on the fact that women will be participating in them.

 Saudi women hold applications as they head to register to vote.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, and any kind of elections, even ones in which only men are involved, are a rarity in the country’s history. Semi-regular municipal elections were held throughout the 50s and 60s (with only men participating), but after that, they were discontinued, and the next elections didn’t happen until 2005 and 2011. Finally, tomorrow, on December 12, elections are scheduled to take place again, with women finally eligible to participate. In September, voter registration was opened, and for the first time, women were getting registered to cast their ballots. But they won’t be able to vote for their right to drive or anything major like that (and neither will the men, for that matter). Here, change like that comes only by royal decree.

In Saudi Arabia, change can feel like it happens only at a glacial pace (ironic, since it gets really, really hot here). But change is happening, and the fact that women are now voting and running for local office is, I think, both an end in itself, as well as a rather understated (at least, here in the Kingdom) new beginning. And the change is demonstrated by more than just women technically having the legal right to vote. Within a few days of the beginning of voter registration this past September, two prominent car services, Careem and EasyTaxi, which are (obviously) staffed by men and frequently used by women in Riyadh who don’t have their own drivers to shuttle them from place to place, announced that they would be offering free rides to any woman who wanted to register to vote. They will also be offering free rides for women who want to get to the polls to vote in tomorrow’s election.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned living in a Saudi family for the past three and a half years, it’s that despite – or perhaps as a result of of – living with some of the tightest cultural and governmental restrictions in the world, when the going gets tough, Saudi women know how to get things done!

This…this weird little thing…this is exciting to me. Sure, it’s obviously a smart PR move for such services. And it isn’t helpful to women in smaller towns and cities where these services don’t operate. But to me, it’s also a sign that the culture is changing. The fact that businesses are banking on getting good PR for offering women the mobility necessary to contribute to how their towns and cities are run…it says a lot to me. No one is objecting. It isn’t making waves in the Saudi press (much like the elections themselves). But to me, it feels like a huge deal. Granted, I’m just an American bystander to the whole process. And yet, I still can’t help but feel like despite all of the struggles, injustices, and baffling incidents that I don’t understand in Saudi Arabia, there are so many people here who make it their life’s work to push the country forward, even if it’s just baby steps. I respect them so much and I place my faith in them.

There is still such a long way to go. But as the mother of a Saudi-American daughter, I do have hope. Despite the multiple everyday rights that women still do not have here, the number of women on the Shoura Council, the (essentially powerless but symbolically important) advisory board to King Salman, currently has a higher percentage of women than the U.S. Congress, thanks to appointments and regulations established by the late King Abdullah, who died earlier this year. My husband and I talk optimistically about a future in which our now-toddler daughter will eventually get both American and Saudi driver’s licenses. We talk about how if she wants to become a lawyer someday, she could now open a practice in Riyadh if she chose to, and how she could do such important work for women in Saudi Arabia. (Of course, my husband, a CPA, is even more excited about the prospect of her joining the currently miniscule ranks of female Saudi CPAs and opening an accounting firm with him someday.) Maybe, just maybe, someday, she will cast a ballot in a Saudi national election.

Or she could even be on the ballot. There are hundreds of women who are listed on the municipal ballots currently being prepared for the elections, including Loujain Hathloul, a Saudi woman who, just over a year ago, was detained at the Saudi border with the United Arab Emirates when she tried to drive her car into Saudi Arabia. These women are running for office in their communities, forging new paths for their daughters and mine. I stand behind them. I can’t wait to how they shape their country for the better. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned living in a Saudi family for the past three and a half years, it’s that despite—or perhaps as a result of of—living with some of the tightest cultural and governmental restrictions in the world, when the going gets tough, Saudi women know how to get things done.

Lead photo via Tribes of the World, creative common license.


About the contributor

abayaselfieNicole Hunter-Mostafa is an American woman living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with her Saudi husband and their Saudi-American baby girl.

Nicole writes, reads, takes photos, and works on her dissertation for her Ph.D. in education (with an emphasis in cultural & linguistic diversity). She blogs about her wonderings, observations, musings, adventures, misadventures, and experiments at The Same Rainbow’s End. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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