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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Historic Elections for Saudi Women

Hideki Nakayama

Dec. 14, 2015

Voters in Saudi Arabia made history last weekend. They took part in the first ever poll that allowed women to participate both as candidates and voters. Saudis live under a strict interpretation of Islam. Women traditionally have a male guardian, and need his permission to talk with men who are not relatives.

The election was a milestone for one of the world's most conservative countries.

Women won 20 of the nearly 2,000 seats up for grabs. While that is a small percentage, it represents a big shake-up of the political scene. Saudis saw something they'd never seen before: almost 1,000 women campaigning in an election.

Some of those women explained their decision to run. Lama Al Sulaiman is on the board of a Saudi conglomerate and also serves as vice president of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. She said she was unworried about competing with male candidates.

She ran her campaign in Jeddah, a center of international commerce that is known for being more liberal than other parts of the country. It is where women have made the most advances.

“I'm joining the elections to win,” said Sulaiman. “If I lose I will be very disappointed. I think that men love to make it look like their job is always so much tougher, and therefore women cannot be part of it, but I think once we join, we find that the job was not that tough.”

Female candidates faced some challenges along the way. They were unable to put their faces on campaign posters, instead listing their name and candidate number on the billboards that lined streets.

Election rules also banned female candidates from talking to male voters face to face.

Marketing consultant Rasha Hefzi also stood for election and ran a strong campaign. She became interested in local politics after taking part in a rescue operation when Jeddah was flooded.

Hefzi seized the opportunity to run in the election, but faced many obstacles. In her electoral district, just 159 of the 6,000 people who were registered to vote were women. Hefzi had to find a way to convince men to elect her.

To reach male voters, she needed a male campaign manager, so she found one who'd been through the process before. Elhab Hassan Nassier ran for election four years ago.

“There are lots of inside information, lots of secrets, lots of techniques you may know, you didn't know, you know it only after you lose,” explained Nassier.

Hefzi's campaign team collected voter registration lists from the electoral committee, then asked volunteers to find the voters' phone numbers. Day in and day out, she manned the phones, asking people for their support.

Women’s rights activist Tamador al-Yami, who became famous for a campaign to allow women to drive, said she did not want to miss the opportunity to stand for office. But because of her background, she could not even get her name on the ballot.

“When the final lists came out and our names weren't there, it was missing...so I checked with other candidates...and I realized that only those who...had some activism activity were disqualified,” she said.

Electoral officials never told her why she was disqualified, but she thinks it was connected to her bid to overturn Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers. About two years ago, she posted photos online showing women behind the wheel of cars, aiming to pressure authorities into allowing women to drive.

Though her election campaign was never allowed to get off the ground, al-Yami did not miss the chance to vote. She said she looked for female candidates whose policies would do the most for women.

Al-Yami said the poll was a big step in the right direction for women in Saudi Arabia. “It's a start for Saudi women, it's a change for them of course because years and years of...asking for their rights and being disappointed. Finally some change comes along, so definitely it's a day to celebrate."


NHK World’s Hideki Nakayama crossed live from Jeddah to speak with NEWSROOM TOKYO’s Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya.

Beppu: How did the women you featured in your report fare in the election?

Nakayama: Rasha Hefzi won her seat. She said it was great challenge to persuade men to vote for her, but she pulled it off. Hefzi said it was a stunning moment in a conservative country where women are subject to male guardianship laws.

Shibuya: How are people in Saudi Arabia reacting to the results?

Nakayama: There's some surprise. Some local media had predicted it would be impossible for any women to win. Many female candidates said if even one of them won, it would be a major step forward. Now, 20 women have places on their local assembly. That's a historic figure, even if it accounts for less than one percent of the seats. I spoke to people at polling stations, and some men said it was important for the world of politics and business to take women's views into account. I was hoping there would be more people like them.

Looking at the voter turnout, it was 44 percent among men, and 81 percent among women. But there were many times more men who had registered to vote. 1.35 million compared with just 130,000. I think the results this time could inspire a stronger interest, and turnout, among women next time around, especially if the women who won can make an impact on their local assemblies.

Beppu: Do you think the election will help improve women's status?

Nakayama: Not overnight. This is a very conservative kingdom. But many women who took part in the election said they're hoping to expand their rights in an unhurried, steady way. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive cars. And there is no public transportation. So, they had to take a taxi or have someone drive them to the polling stations. There have been several campaigns in Saudi Arabia to give women the right to drive. I thought that idea will gain momentum now.

And Saudi Arabia, which relies on oil money, is feeling the effects of falling crude oil prices. That may be one reason the government has been relaxing the rules over what kind of jobs women can take. The leaders are seeing that it makes financial sense to have more women working in private businesses. So things are changing in Saudi Arabia, little by little.