For women like Dr Haifa al-Hababi, running as a candidate in Saudi Arabia's municipal elections this Saturday is a real breakthrough moment. The first in the kingdom's history where women can run and vote in an election, she is one of almost 1,000 women against 5,938 men competing for 2,100 available council seats. "To be honest, I never thought such a thing would happen," she tells Broadly. "I feel great; I'm making history."
With an additional 1,050 seats appointed with approval from the King with no quota for women, the council is the only electable government body in the country. As these are the third elections in the nation's modern history since 2005—with men exclusively running for power in the previous two—the move is widely seen as a small but significant opening for women to play an equal role in a society not known for female emancipation.
Despite the cultural shift, the women running for election face an uphill battle. In line with the kingdom's strict policy of gender segregation, they cannot address male voters directly and must speak from behind a partition. As part of an attempt to create a more level playing field, the General Election Committee has banned both male and female candidates from showing their faces in promotional flyers, billboards, or social media. They're also not allowed to appear on television or send messages directly to voters through the country's most popular social network, WhatsApp.
But an election where candidates are not seen but heard suits candidates like al-Hababi, the first woman registered to run for a seat in the fourth district of the kingdom's capital Riyadh. She is up against 46 other candidates and says that the rules provide an opportunity for candidates to focus on policy, preventing them from advertising their religiosity through the length of their beard. "Previously, people judged men based on his beard without looking at his mission nor his vision," she says. "The [gender] separation doesn't look like it sounds."
As a professor who teaches architecture and urban design in the women's section of Prince Sultan University, al-Hababi's propositions for change are firmly rooted in her practice. "As female architects, you don't need activism to eliminate pollution," she says. "My vision is to provide practical solutions to reduce traffic, create environmental platforms for recycling and try to involve more women in these and other developments such as urban planning. I'm running to set an example to my female students that they can do it."
The elections are also the first time that women have been allowed to vote. With approximately 130,000 women registered to vote versus 1.35 million men, the candidates are not guaranteed a vote from fellow women either. "Whether it's regarding elections or business, what matters for me is the personality and the qualification regardless of gender," says Maha Noor Elahi, a blogger and English lecturer at Jeddah's Dar Al-Hekma University. She adds that "gender doesn't have any influence on who I vote for, and it doesn't have any influence on any of my other choices in general."
I think future female politicians should start to look at where the problem really lies; it's in the dictator systems that govern the Arab world.
The 2011 decision to allow women to participate in elections is seen as part of the late King Abdullah's legacy. Before he died in January this year, the King appointed 30 women to the country's top advisory Shura Council. Women were also given licenses to practice law, and labor rules were changed to allow women to work as sales clerks in lingerie and women's clothing stores. The government also began issuing identification cards for women.
Despite these changes, which were hailed by women such as International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, the King had also removed deputy education minister Norah al-Faiz, the country's most powerful female politician. Women are still required to wear the hijab by law and need permission from their 'guardians'—father, husband, or brother—before they travel.
It is restrictions like these that has prompted veteran feminist Aziza al-Youssef to avoid taking part in the whole process completely. "I am boycotting the election because this is just window dressing to give the idea that women have rights in Saudi Arabia," she told NPR. She didn't even register to vote.
Read more: Saudi Women Alone, Photographed
And unsurprisingly, the campaigning itself haven't gone smoothly; some female candidates were suspended a few days into the two-week window of the campaign trail. In a surprise reversal however, officials lifted its block late Wednesday on activist and candidate Loujain Hathloul, who gained fame last year after being arrested numerous times for livestreaming herself driving her car in defiance of the kingdom's ban on women drivers. "My appeal has been accepted, I'm back on the candidates list. I'm back in the game!" shetweeted, posting an image of her document.
It's unclear whether the ban will remain for the remaining two candidates. But voters like Noor Elahi say the voices raised by such activists are key to fight corruption that remains in the country. "The government knows when and who to silence before things get out of its control, but of course they [activist voices] are necessary," she says. "I think future female politicians should start to look at where the problem really lies; it's in the dictator systems that govern the Arab world. There are many voices that are calling for drastic reform in other areas, but I know for sure that the government is not going to change immediately because of them."
But these challenges are not stopping al-Hababi from running. "I've been in Riyadh for two and a half years working in a different jobs, doing everything by myself. I've never been asked to bring my husband nor my father or asked for their permission to do anything."
Don't forget that we are still a new country, only 85 years old—so these are just first steps. If you asked me 11 years ago I would have complained, but now we are hitting the road. It's all part of change."