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For The First Time, Women Elected To Municipal Councils In Saudi Arabia


Over the weekend, women in Saudi Arabia voted for the first time and also won elections for the first time. Women could not drive to the polls. It's the only country where they're banned from driving. Yet, they were allowed to participate once they arrived.


NPR's Deborah Amos is in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah. She's on the line. And Deborah, what was election day like?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Well, polling stations here were segregated. So I could only go to the female side. I went to a local school in Jeddah. And you would recognize it. There were voting boxes and paper ballots. But there were women taking selfies after they voted. The candidates stayed all day. There was coffee and cookies. It was a celebration. Female registration was low because there were bureaucratic hurdles and lack of awareness. They couldn't drive themselves to registration. But for those who did sign up, 80 percent of them showed up for the vote. And here is Basmah Omair. She's the CEO of a lobbying center for women's empowerment in the Chamber of Commerce. She's a U.S.-educated PhD in business and education. And you can hear the excitement in her voice.

BASMAH OMAIR: It has a nice feeling to bring all the generations - my mom today came. It was her first time ever, and same thing with me and my daughter. So we have, like, three different generations that are voting in the same day for the first time. So that, I think, is unique. And we're all going through the same experience for the first time.

INSKEEP: Which sounds emotional, but what are the positions for which they were actually voting?

AMOS: Well, these councils are the only elected body in the kingdom. And even that's new. This time, 66 percent of those seats are elected, and the rest are appointed. They meet. They discuss local issues. In Jeddah, it's about the annual flood. That's a big deal, lack of trash collection. But the councils don't really have very much power. It's more like a lobbying group or civil society. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. And it's the royal rulers that make all the important political decisions.

INSKEEP: Oh, I'm thinking about in some American cities there are neighborhood advisory councils and community boards and so forth.

AMOS: Sure.

INSKEEP: They can give advice. They don't have maximum power. But some women are voting. Some women were running. And what was it? Twenty women won seats. Is that right?

AMOS: It's right. And that was larger than anyone expected. I'm in Jeddah. This is the country's business center. It's considered the most progressive city in the country. You see more women in the workforce here, more gender mixing. One of the winners is Lama Sulieman. She's the vice president of Jeddah's Chamber of Commerce. She's a British-trained biochemist. There was also Rasha Hafzi. She's 28 years old, a business entrepreneur. She's a well-known activist. She was the youth candidate. And that really means something here in a country where 60 percent of the population is under 30. Her campaign was striking. You know, women here were not allowed to meet male voters face-to-face. So her male supporters, including a group of standup comics, gave a show to attract male voters. So I talked to Yasser Bakr. He organized this event. And I asked him if he could recall that standup routine. And he said, well, you know, in U.S. elections people are always digging up dirt on candidates. So here's the joke about Saudis.

YASSER BAKR: The kind of dirt you would find in Saudi is that this female candidate would be saying about the other female candidate that, don't vote for her. All of her bags are knockoffs. They're not original Chanels. And that's a reason, in that comedian's mind, not to vote for that lady.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) OK.

AMOS: Saudi joke. So these female candidates had creative ways to campaign on social media. There was one architect in Riyadh. She walked around her neighborhood. She filmed cracked sidewalks and missing trash cans. She posted daily on Snapchat, but only a voiceover because she wasn't allowed to show her face.

INSKEEP: This is all impressive, Deborah Amos. But I do have to mention, we did say 20 women were elected. But that's out of 2,000 seats available on local councils that don't really have much power, which brings to mind the accusation by some in and out of Saudi Arabia that this is all something of a show to improve Saudi Arabia's image.

AMOS: I heard that view here. There were women who were boycotting this, men who said, I don't care. Saudi is the last monarchy in the Gulf to allow women to vote. Change here comes from the top down. It was the former king who first announced that women could vote in 2011. But it took a bottom-up effort, women who were organized, who wanted this vote, to get in on the ballot on 2015. They had awareness campaigns. Now, the campaign itself was limited to local issues. This was all about quality of life, public gardens, trash collection - nothing about human rights or democracy or sharia law punishments that get so much attention in the West. Women who fought hard for this, though, say it's a step for civil society. They want a voice. And the younger men who voted for them, they want one too.

INSKEEP: Well, how open was this country as you tried to cover it as a reporter?

AMOS: It was a real struggle to frame what this election means. How big is this step? It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of the elections. And still, it's very clear for a woman in Saudi Arabia how many restrictions there are. Women can't drive here. They can't travel without permission of the male guardian. That's usually a close male relative. They can't go to college without the permission of a man. They can't even get some medical treatments. How big is this step? For Saudis, it felt big. For Westerners covering this election, it did not. I think we have to see how much more women push.

INSKEEP: Deborah, thanks very much, as always.

AMOS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Deborah Amos in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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