They cannot post their portraits on campaign ads. They won’t be driving to campaign rallies. And they will have to pitch to men from behind screens to comply with strict segregation laws. This is electoral campaigning for women, Saudi style. The municipal poll on December 12 is the first time that women will vote and stand in a nationwide election, which is only the third voting experiment ever to be held in the conservative kingdom. It is, moreover, a partial election, with only half the seats up for grabs, the rest appointed. And, to top it all, the councils have limited authority. And yet, instead of frustration, I saw excitement in the faces of women running in the elections. For Saudi suffragettes, change comes at such a slow pace that every little step helps.
Take Lama al-Sulaiman. A decade ago, she won a seat on the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, becoming the first woman elected to such a post. The daughter of one of Jeddah’s prominent business families is gearing up to fight for a municipal seat. “To go from no power to little power is power,” she told me when I met her last week in the Red Sea port.
She pointed to her experience at the chamber of commerce, where she has been involved in every regulation pertaining to the private sector or to women’s issues. “In the municipal council I’ll be in contact with the needs of society, not just business — I can speak on their behalf, I can identify success stories.”