One candidate wants more recycling. A rival envisions community centers with day care. How about creating Western-style public libraries? asks another. These are hardly the rallying cries of revolutionaries. But, in the ultraconservative context of Saudi Arabia, such appeals are breaking new ground: They are coming from some of the more than 900 female candidates in the kingdom’s first nationwide election in which women are able to run — and vote. The balloting Saturday for municipal council seats across the kingdom — from Riyadh’s chaotic sprawl to oil-rich outposts — marks a cautious step forward in a nation where social change does not come easily. It must always pass muster through a ruling system that may be Western-allied but still answers to a religious establishment very wary of bold moves, particularly regarding the role of women. Women still cannot drive. They must receive a male guardian’s permission to travel abroad alone, and they face other daily reminders of Saudi Arabia’s strict brand of Islam and the state’s punishing stance against any open dissent. “Saudi Arabia has done a great PR job in selling these elections as part of much-touted reforms,” said Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, a Washington-based political affairs group. “The reality is that not much changes.”
Yet to dismiss the elections as mere window dressing also fails to grasp the moment. True, the municipal councils have limited powers — much more about, say, traffic lights and sidewalks than big-picture issues. Still, opening even this one path for women’s political engagement redefines Saudi citizenship at a time of huge challenges, including the Saudi-led war against rebels in Yemen and slumping oil prices that have thinned the nation’s lifeblood.
“Someone has to pave the way,” said Karema Bokhary, a 50-year-old science teacher who has two daughters of voting age: a 20-year-old studying law and an 18-year-old in pre-med. “I’m doing this for my daughters. They are witnessing a new way to be a Saudi woman. It says: ‘Stand up; make your voice heard.’”
This is also an indirect message for Saudi King Salman, who inherited the reforms when he took power nearly a year ago. His late brother, King Abdullah, brought a series of small-but-significant social shifts for women, including setting the upcoming election rules in motion years ago. The 150-seat Shura Council, an appointed advisory body, now includes 30 women. He opened the country’s first mixed-gender university.