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Women In Saudi Arabia Can Finally Vote, So Why Is Turnout So Low?


Saudi Arabian voters go to the polls today to vote in local elections. It's only the third time in history that elections of any kind have been held in Saudi Arabia. And for the first time ever, women will be able to vote. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin is in Saudi Arabia to cover the election. She joins us now from Riyadh. Rachel, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: You're at a polling station right now, right?

MARTIN: I am indeed.

SIMON: And what's it like?

MARTIN: Well, there are probably, at this point in the day, about 20 people milling around. This is an exclusively female polling station, one of a hundred around the city. And there are probably 20 people here, a mix of volunteers and voters. This is an important election. As you note, it's the first time that women can vote at all. And they're voting for local representatives on their municipal councils. These are, like, neighborhood groups that manage really local issues - trash collection, traffic lights, making sure there are enough sidewalks. About 40 women have voted at this polling center so far, which isn't that many. It's not expected to be a very high turnout in general. Only 130,000 women registered to vote in the entire country, which is not a very high percentage considering it's a population of roughly 30 million.

SIMON: And any idea why turnout's so low?

MARTIN: There are several answers to that question. First, it's just general awareness, right? This is something very new and it's a huge task to educate people - men and women - about voting, how you do it, why it's important. But a lot of women we spoke with here said they also just don't see how the election connects to their daily lives. So to try to explain the different perspectives on this, I'm going to introduce you to several women, starting with Aziza Youssef

AZIZA YOUSSEF: I am very sorry.

MARTIN: No, you're fine.

I was sitting in Aziza's living room with her daughter and another friend. And I was there to get her take on the elections. Aziza was running a little late. She rushes in, throws off her black headscarf and then settles into a dark wood chair right next to me.

YOUSSEF: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: This former university lecturer now runs a full-time catering business. At the same time, she's made a name for herself, pushing the Saudi government to remove its ban against women driving. She's the kind woman you'd think would be pretty excited about voting for the first time - not so.

YOUSSEF: I'm boycotting the election. In my point of view, it's putting backward the women movement for rights.

MARTIN: It's putting the women's movement backwards, she told me. And honestly, this is not what I thought was going to hear on this trip. When we in the U.S. or other Western democracies hear Saudi Arabia is letting women vote, we think, hey, great for women. Aziza Youssef says that's exactly what the Saudi regime wants the world to think.

YOUSSEF: This election is just - it's for the West. It's not for us. It's good for the West. It's good for our picture in the West.

MARTIN: Aziza's 30-something-year-old daughter, Sarah Alkhalidi, is there too. Her long, black, wavy hair hangs over her shoulder, and she's sporting these very cool thick-rimmed black eyeglasses. Sarah agrees with her mom that these very local elections won't change the big issues that matter to her.

SARAH ALKHALIDI: It's like giving me a cashmere sweater when I need a place to sleep. That's the analogy I'm using.

MARTIN: This working mother of three wants more control of her daily life.

ALKHALIDI: I can't open a bank account for my children that takes money out of my paycheck and, like, for a savings account for them. I can't do that. Their dad has to do that. So it's like the whole guardianship issue.

MARTIN: She's talking about the guardianship rules that dictate how women move around Saudi society. And they move around with the permission of men - a father, a brother, a husband or son. Men act as so-called guardians who oversee women's choices and escort them in public places.

ALKHALIDI: Even if my guardian tries to renew my passport, I can't pick it up. He has to pick it up for me. So I feel like these issues are more significant and more - like, they have more influence on my daily life.

MARTIN: There are the women like Sarah and her mom who know the election is happening but they aren't voting as a political statement. But there are so many more who don't even know today's vote is taking place.

A couple days ago, I went to a local shopping mall here in central Riyadh. On one side, a busy food court and on the other, the British-based department store Harvey Nichols. When I was there, I met a bunch of young women who work in the marketing department, including 32-year-old Mona al Motari. And when I asked what these elections mean to her, she responded the same way a lot of young women did.

MONA AL MOTARI: I actually - I'm not aware of it, no.

MARTIN: Her boss had a different reaction.

MAY SAJA: It is a big deal. This is just the beginning.

MARTIN: Her name is May Saja, and she's the general manager of merchandising at Harvey Nichols, which in itself is a big deal since Saudi Arabia only started letting women work in mixed gender situations in 2011. She says the last five years have brought a lot of change. Most notably, a new law passed just this week that gives divorced women and widows more control over their families' lives. And there are more women than ever in the workforce, but she says change has to be rolled out very carefully in this society.

SAJA: It's not easy to change the mindset of a whole country, and you do have a lot of mindsets. So you do have the more religious people and you have the liberals and you have the in-between. So you need to change it slow because sometimes if you just say, OK, we need to do this now, people are going to - it's going to create chaos. But what is happening now, which is slowly, it's suitable for Saudi people to accept it.

MARTIN: So we heard there, Scott, from Saudi businesswomen, mothers and activists. You'll notice that we did not hear the voices of candidates themselves.

SIMON: And why?

MARTIN: They are under a lot of tight restrictions. They can't speak to any media before the results of the vote are announced. That goes for the male candidates as well as for the women. There are often government minders at these campaign events. We've seen them there when we've gone. They make sure the candidates aren't giving official interviews. We were told at one event we couldn't even record the candidates' remarks. But we ran into one candidate this morning at this polling center, and she was so excited. She was showing off the credential around her neck that said that she is indeed a candidate. There are 50 people on the ballot here in this district. I should note, 23 of those candidates are women. And even though this isn't her polling place, she just came to see how things are going and to be part of the moment. And I asked her if she thought she has a chance at winning. And she said, I hope so. But even if she doesn't, she said just being able to run for public office at all is a huge step for Saudi women.

SIMON: Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin reporting from Riyadh. And you can hear more of her reporting tomorrow on Weekend Edition Sunday. Rachel, thanks so much.

MARTIN: Thanks so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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