SHAFAQNA – Their election leaflets cannot contain photographs, and they are not allowed to address men directly at campaign meetings.
But in a breakthrough moment for Saudi Arabia, a country known neither for voting nor for female emancipation, the names of the first women to nominate themselves as election candidates have been published.
The elections for local councils next month are the third in the nation’s modern history, but the first in which women will be allowed both to vote and to stand, under a decree by the late King Abdullah.
Their duties should they win will be the mundane tasks of councillors everywhere, such as supervising road maintenance. But the opportunity has been seized by some of the country’s most prominent women’s rights activists, as well by others who see themselves as apolitical but who want to improve their local communities. More than 1,000 women have submitted their names across the country, far more than many expected.
“I’m not excited by the idea of winning,” said Loujain al-Hathloul, who earlier this year was released from 73 days in prison after taking part in the campaign to allow women to drive. Now she is Candidate Number 1 for Riyadh District 5. “I’m focused on increasing the number of women who stand in elections.”
King Abdullah, who died at the age of 91 in January, won a reputation in his later years for increasing opportunities for women in the kingdom; one of the few countries that forces all women to wear the hijab and requires them to seek permission of their “guardians” – father, husband or brother – before they travel.
The number of women at university overtook the number of men, while he also ordered that women be allowed to work as shop assistants, since when hundreds of thousands are estimated to have joined the workforce.
The kingdom has also given 750,000 scholarships to study abroad in the last decade or so, many to women, and the changes are often most noticed by them when they return.
“Since I returned I have worked, I travel, and no one has ever asked for my permission from a guardian,” said Haifa al-Halabi, an architect who studied and worked in London and Glasgow before returning to Saudi Arabia two years ago. She is standing as a candidate for Riyadh District 4, has a column in a local newspaper under a hijab-less picture byline and is happy to meet a male journalist at home wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Punk’s Not Dead”.
Although both women are among those who have studied abroad, they represent different factions. Mrs Halabi, 38, and married to a lawyer, says she is standing to put her architectural principles – that good design is a way of life – into practice.
She sees the campaigns to allow women to drive and to end the guardianship as part of an “old generation feminism” that is ceasing to be relevant for the many Saudi women who have education and jobs.
Mrs Hathloul, on the other hand, who is married to one of Saudi Arabia’s best-known comedians, has herself become one of its best-known activists. She was arrested last year for trying to drive from the United Arab Emirates – where there are far fewer restrictions on women – across the border. This “international” act of civil disobedience was seen as particularly provocative, and she was at one time threatened with terrorism charges.
She says she is able to do what she does only thanks to a liberal father, who has backed her campaign and who – despite being a former navy officer – sat in the passenger seat with her while she broke the law.
The two women also have different attitudes to some of the rules instituted for these elections, including a ban on using photographs and on candidates addressing members of the opposite sex.
Both rules apply to men and women, but for the activists, this is a clever way of discriminating while appearing to be equal: if candidates can only effectively campaign in private, that gives the advantage to men, who have wider work and social networks.
Mrs Halabi however says the ban on photographs is good – it prevents people advertising their religiosity through the length of their beard, discouraging hardline Islamism.
For Naseema Assada, one of nine women among 62 candidates for 12 seats in the eastern town of Qateef, the election is even more sensitive. She comes from the minority Shia community, and Qateef is a hotspot of anti-government Shia demonstrations.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, the young protester whose sentence to death by beheading and crucifixion was condemned by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, provoking a row with the Saudi ambassador to London, is also from Qateef.
Mrs Assada’s involvement in the women’s driving movement stemmed from her work in publicising cases of arrested protesters. The protests in Qateef in 2011-12 triggered a government backlash, as did all the events of the Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia. A swathe of civil society activists were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. “I was interested in human rights first,” Mrs Assada said. “One of our human rights is our political rights, and political rights for women are also very important.”
She has twice been “called in” by police and urged to “speak softly” when it comes to the government.
She admits that in some ways the elections are a “play”. Other activists are boycotting them altogether, like Aziza al-Yousef, a veteran feminist. “Things are actually getting worse and worse,” Mrs Yousef said, referring to fears that the new king, Salman, with a reputation as a conservative, will halt his predecessor’s reforms.
“I think we need to change the whole system. We don’t need revolution but we need evolution, to change the structure of government.” The number of women going to university had just created a “well-educated prison”, she said.
But Mrs Assada said it was still worth participating to show both men and women what was possible.
“It’s just baby steps, and the people want more and more,” she said. “It’s not that they are giving us our rights. But it’s not too hard a way to educate women and people in general throughout society about what our rights are.”