In Historic Saudi Elections, These Women Stepped Up as Voters and Candidates

Q: What did it feel like, signing your name in the year 2015 to that piece of government paper that says you’re now registered to vote?

A: (Pause.) “It felt like … progress.”

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Allowed for the first time to participate in the vote for local council seats, these six were among about 900 of their countrywomen to declare themselves candidates as well.


Until the opening weeks of December, two countries in the world still denied women the right to vote: Vatican City, where the franchise is restricted to cardinals; and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Now there is only one. (Technically, yes, Vatican City is a country.) On December 12, the Saudi women in the photo gallery below voted, joining other countrywomen for the first elections open to women in the kingdom’s 83 year history. Each of these women, it is safe to assume, cast her ballot for herself. The sole Saudi offices decided by public vote are seats on local councils, and for the 2015 elections, following a promise made by the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Saudi women were permitted both to vote for their council members and to run as candidates—as long as they follow the rules.

Those rules, like the election itself—like almost everything in Saudi Arabia that involves politics, change, religious dictates, and the proper sphere of women—were extraordinary and fraught. All campaign events were required to ensure complete separation between women and men. A female candidate who wanted to address men at her own event had to speak from behind a partition, or have a man speak for her. Campaign literature could not include photos of candidates, women or men; it’s understood that during the last elections some Saudis just chose men who appeared by their beard length to be severe Islamic conservatives, and in much of Saudi Arabia it’s still considered unacceptable for a woman to be photographed at all.

They’re not much of anything, these council seats: that’s what you hear many Saudis say, especially many educated younger women who, despite what an outsider might assume, have not been enthusiastic supporters of this first-ever chance to vote. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, run absolutely by one enormous royal family, the Al Sauds, under the leadership of Abdullah’s brother King Salman. Municipal councils oversee only local matters, like street repair and sewage service, and a lot of the time they do a lousy job even at that. When we asked 30-year-old Saudi photographer Tasneem Alsultan to visit some of the new candidates in early December, in advance of an article in February’s National Geographic Magazine about the changing lives of Saudi women, Alsultan was intrigued but said that, like many of her friends, she hadn’t bothered to register to vote.

Why not? Too many impediments, she and other women said, and for positions of no consequence. Word went out, once women-only signup centers opened in girls’ schools, that the process could be daunting: multiple trips back and forth between registration office and home, all to produce the right identity and residence documentation, and all requiring the help of a male family member or hired driver because in Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive.

“Everybody was so cynical about the whole thing,” Alsultan said by phone, as she was first heading out to meet candidates. “Like they’re just giving us a pacifier to help us be quiet.”

Then she set to work, and something happened. The women in her photos include a physician, a university administrator, a homemaker, a hospital optometrist, an architect. They are among the thousand women who decided not only to register as voters, but to declare themselves the  nation’s first female candidates for office. A few are old enough to be Alsultan’s grandmother. In many parts of Saudi Arabia, women that age and younger remember a time when a woman was issued no identity card of her own, when her birth was not noted in family histories, when it was considered shameful for a man to speak her name aloud.

Now, in September 2015, a retired Saudi professor named Sahar Nasief could text to America the just-snapped cellphone photo of an ancient lady in a black abaya and headscarf, her wheelchair rolled up to an official’s table, signing the document that would let her cast a vote.

My mom, read the text. Naela Mohamed Salih Nasief. She’s 95. The eldest to register in Jeddah. Taking a deep breath can’t believe she’s done it.

“I’m inspired,” Alsultan said, a few days in. “When I was asking them why most of you are in your 40s, 50s or 60s—with full-time jobs, or retiring soon—they said they realize that when it comes to your time, and your daughter’s time, we’ll be able to say, ‘We set a path.’”

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AT 38, MUNICIPAL COUNCIL candidate Rasha Hefzi is a businesswoman with the kind of career ambitions now increasingly common among her generation of educated Saudi women, especially those from Jeddah, the nation’s most cosmopolitan city. She’s a development consultant, a government trainer, an events planner. Overseeing the setup of her own campaign tent, on one of Jeddah’s main streets, was in certain ways an ordinary day’s work for Hefzi. “This is what I do for a living, events management and PR,” she says.  

As Hefzi wields the microphone for her election pitch, during the compressed 10-day campaign period permitted by the government, only women can hear and see her directly. A high interior partition shields their side of the tent from the men’s. Saudi election rules require this separation; as women all over the kingdom have been taking on new jobs and crowding women-only universities, “mixing”—that’s the Saudi term for the intermingling of men and women who aren’t close family members—remains so socially and politically controversial that arguments about it infuse nearly every aspect of society.    

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WHY DECIDE TO SPEND money and effort (the tent, the permits, the social media, the long hours) to seek election to a job that doesn’t put you in charge of much of anything?

“The decision was not mine,” Hefzi says. “They pushed me.” She means people who know her, both women and men. Elections to the kingdom’s municipal councils, in 2005 and 2011, were discouraging in many communities; with men the only voters, many Saudis were said to have chosen based solely on tribal affiliation or imagined future personal profit.

Not so different from other countries’ political processes, at that. But chronic public service disasters, like yearly flooding in Jeddah, now have some Saudis arguing that women might actually do better than men at attending to detail and fixing things that are broken. “And women are not with men all the time,” Hefzi says. “There are a lot of issues men don’t know about.”

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INSIDE HEFZI'S JEDDAH campaign tent, a picture-snapping woman simultaneously respects and nudges at the rules keeping her to the women’s-only side. This is a peculiarly Saudi moment. In public, nearly everywhere, walls, signs, and ropes cleave men and women into separate spaces. In private, especially in certain more liberal pockets of the kingdom, some reform-minded Saudis quietly defy those barriers. And the subject of this picture-taker’s attention, unseen to the right, is a supportive man, a Saudi sheikh, campaigning on Hefzi’s behalf. As she is forbidden from directly addressing male listeners at her own event, the sheikh has volunteered for this duty, explaining to his fellow males why he believes in Hefzi’s candidacy: Because, he says, she’s qualified for the job.

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IT WAS RAINING earlier in Jeddah—no catastrophic flooding this time around, but enough to thin Hefzi’s turnout. Women, like men, spread word about campaign events and their favored candidates via social media, which has also become a prime venue, as so often happens in Saudi public discussion, for bigger argument about the election itself. On popular outlets like YouTube and Twitter, religious conservatives have been broadcasting their objections to female candidates in warnings that range from thoughtful (a talk-show guest’s explanation) to sprightly (little animated guy waving a stick at a whiteboard) to thundering (Arabic lettering across a screen: It is forbidden for women to participate in municipal councils).

Why? Because of the job description. A female council member would have to attend regular meetings alongside men. She might need to give orders to men. She might visit all-male construction areas and listen to people’s problems there. And how could she do all that, the little animated guy wants to know, without mixing impermissibly with men who are not her immediate family members or her male guardian? (In Saudi Arabia, to this day, every woman must have such a guardian; she cannot obtain a passport without one.)

But including women in these elections was the personal wish of Abdullah, whose decade-long reign included other advances for women: new job opportunities, international scholarships, the appointment of women to the royal advisory council. His successor, the more cautious King Salman, could have cancelled the election plans. He did not, and in December, social media and television were hit with an array of exhortations to vote, as an act of patriotism, for the rightperson. “Don’t vote for someone according to whether it’s a man or a woman!” cries one cartoon character to another, with a Saudi flag in the background. “And believe me when I tell you, your vote makes a difference!”

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GROUP SELFIE, Saudi style. Outside the walls of Rasha Hefzi’s tent, once the evening’s event is over, the dictates of campaign gender-separation rules no longer apply. Foreign and local reporters keep asking Hefzi how the female candidates feel about “entering history,” as she puts it, but she’s adamant about sticking to the prose of an aspiring civic leader. “I’m not thinking about entering history,” she says. “We are just thinking about benefitting Jeddah. We’ve been working for so long—we’re just celebrating it right now, even if we don’t win. We created history already.”  

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NASSIMA AL SADAH, 42, WHO likes to call herself a “human rights defender”—she has an MBA, and leads trainings with special emphasis on the empowerment of women—says she put her name in as a council candidate because political involvement, even at the most limited level, matters deeply to her. “I believe that this is our chance, a big chance for us to prove ourselves, and to advertise our intelligence,” she says. “Everything is new. All of us try to teach each other, and read the rules and articles about the elections.”

Al Sadah is a Shia Muslim from the eastern part of Saudi Arabia, part of a religious minority that has at times clashed with the Sunni-dominated government. In dissent-hostile Saudi Arabia she is unusually vocal in her calls for new policies toward both Shias and women. “Very thick-skinned,” says a niece, Hawraa Al Hassan. “A lot of the criticism she receives, she’s able to laugh it off. She’s one of the strongest women I’ve ever met. She really believes change is possible.”

Men around Al Sadah applauded the idea of her candidacy, Al Sadah says; that includes her husband. “When I’m tired and disappointed, he encourages me and raises my spirits,” she says. One of her first campaign stops, before the surprise that upended her plans: the graphic design and printing office behind these elegant opening doors. The company, in Al Sadah’s home city of Qatif, is owned by a woman, who volunteered her time on Al Sadah’s behalf.

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WITHOUT MUCH of a budget, Al Sadah began her campaign operations in her own sitting room.  Saudi homes commonly set aside one room like this as a men’s-only gathering place, but that’s not the arrangement inside Al Sadah’s house. With both male and female colleagues joining in, she began this fall to plot strategic uses of social media to spread her message: Qatif deserves a council that will push hard for the right kinds of development. A YouTube video, for example, would show a father and daughter driving over pothole-filled streets to a fine park in a nearby city, where the daughter asks, “Why don’t we have this in our town?”

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STILL FILLED WITH optimism about her campaign, Nassima flew across the country to Jeddah for a women’s conference. In a restaurant, she talked through campaign plans with fellow candidate Tamador Alyami and Sahar Nasief, a women’s advancement activist who sometimes elects to remove her hijab, or headscarf. It was Nasief who helped her 95-year-old mother register to vote; she says that she when she began sending friends and relatives her photo of the wheelchair-bound lady holding up her new documentation, many women who had been dubious about the signup process suddenly found new resolve. From Nasief, last week: U know a lot of pple including my nieces went to register when they saw their grandma’s pix.   

Al Sadah had wrangled a campaign manager, by the time these restaurant photos were taken—Mustafa Shuala, who works for Saudi Aramco and has five children, including four daughters. He was eager to help her plan her printed materials (with no photos allowed, a designer helped Al Sadah shape the Arabic letters of her name into a beautiful logo) and serve as her designated talking-to-men mouthpiece, as required by election laws. “Change is not easy,” Shuala said, as the campaign was supposed to launch. “We need to go step by step. But Saudi women will never get their rights if they are waiting in their homes.”

Shuala’s youngest daughter is one year old; the oldest is 15. His wife is a newscaster. How would he feel about their daughters fully “mixing” with unrelated men, as the Saudis say, in their working adult lives? “To be honest with you,” he said after a moment’s silence, “it’s not easy. I love my daughters. I’d love my daughters to participate in society, but at the same time I want to have some restriction. By the way”—he chuckled—“I have this conflict also with my wife.”

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THEN, THE DAY BEFORE her campaign was to launch, the blow: Al Sadah’s name had been removed from the list of her council’s candidates. No formal explanation. Was it because a foreign newspaper had run a story about her in November, displaying her face? Was it because she is known as an adamant promoter of Saudi women’s right to drive? Local officials laid out the appeals process to Al Sadah, but told her they didn’t know why she had been pulled or who had been responsible; she telephoned their offices day after day, and checked the government website to see whether her name had reappeared.

Nothing. “I see a lot of emotional messages for Nassima,” Shuala, her campaign manager, said last week, as news of her rejection was ricocheting around Saudi social media. “This itself is a campaign.” Al Sadah was crestfallen but philosophical: “I need to encourage people to vote anyway,” she said. “I’m not upset. I believe I can help people in different ways. But I want to go forward, because it’s our right.”

And Shuala had an idea. He went back to work on Al Sadah’s campaign video, the one with the father and daughter. He cut all mention of Al Sadah’s name, not wishing to inflame any authorities, but kept the small girl asking plaintively why their neighborhood does not have nice parks. He ended with the hashtag Al Sadah’s campaign had planned, #Qatifdeserves, and added in Arabic a single closing line: Dedicated to Nassima Al Sadah, eliminated nominee. He posted it to YouTube near midnight Saudi time, 36 hours before the election was to start. Within an hour, it had almost 2,000 views.

Cynthia Gorney is a contributing writer for National Geographic, and her story on Saudi women will appear in February’s National Geographic Magazine.

Tasneem Alsultan is a freelance photographer based in Jubail Industrial City, Saudi Arabia, and her work can be seen here on Instagram.

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