They cannot drive, not even to take their children to school. They cannot ask for a passport, open a bank account, do a rental contract, go to a doctor.
Treated as children all their lives, the Saudi women cannot even carry out the simplest daily activity without a chaperone, obviously a man. In most cases, the walis is the husband, the brother or even the son as is the case for Faidia al Khadra, one of the three female candidates in the historical elections of 12 December 2015 which Mona El-Naggar, New York Times reporter, filmed in her documentary, LADIES FIRST: SAUDI ARABIA’S FEMALE CANDIDATES.
«Even if I don’t win, it is an experience – everybody says this – instead, I’m saying that I will win». (Faidia al Khadra)
Among the most obscure and invisible women in the world, Saudi women can now vote thanks to a “revolutionary” measure adopted in 2011 by the then King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, part of the winds of the Arab Spring blowing through the region at the time.
LADIES FIRST has two sides. On the one hand, an appointment with history, the momentum represented by the first female suffragette in the Saudi monarchy, and on the other, the opportunity of Mona El-Naggar (of Egyptian origins) to look inside the life of Saudi women, from birth to death in the hands of a man.
The renewal of the municipal councils (284 in all the country) when, for the first time, women were called on to participate, concerned two-thirds of the council members, the rest being appointed by the government. On the surface there is not much at play, the policies of the reign, the important ones, are decided by the royal family and the ministries nominated by the king and, up to then, no woman had ever been given a ministerial position.
And even though limited in their roles in the local governments, the councilors represent the only expression of direct democracy in the Saudi Kingdom, firmly (and totally) governed by the Saud dynasty, thanks to their pact of iron with the powerful fundamentalist clergy, who in exchange for the safeguarding of the Islamic version of Wahhabism, assure them a free hand in managing public issues.
12 December 2015 – Election day
LADIES FIRST, what is actually behind the news? How did the first call to the urns for Saudi women actually go? From the numbers, a flop.
Only 21 female winners, less than 10% of the total seats, a little less than 30,000 women registered compared to the 1,300,000 men. Only 979 women on a list of 6,917 candidates. Of course, it’s the first time that Saudi women have had anything to do with politics, in a country, the only one in the world, where they cannot drive a car, punished with imprisonment (a prohibition that came into force only in 1990 following the fatwa issued by the Grand Mufti).
Apart from this, not even the ‘stronger sex’ did much better – only 25% out of the 20 million with the right to vote (7 voters every 35 minutes according to the electoral observers), a sign of the Saudis’ lack of familiarity with the workings of democracy.
Faidia, Reem and Loujain decided to enter the arena, despite everything stacked against them. A very long list of obstacles, that could dramatically reduce the impact of this ‘historical’ event. Reem Al Suwaih, housewife, proud of traditions, presented her electoral card.
«Without my husband I would never have been able to do it.»
It cannot be said that the absenteeism of many Saudi women had actually been a political choice. As well as the required agreement of a chaperone, the female voters and candidates had to show that they were resident in the electoral constituency. A difficult task as many of them did not appear in property deeds or rental contracts. They practically didn’t exist. For the unmarried, divorced and widows, it was simply impossible.
Loujain Al Hathloul is the real star of LADIES FIRST. Already famous for her protest video «…I will not cover myself…». Loujain had ended up in trouble for having crossed the border with the Arab Emirates by car! Arrested and released, Loujain is now awaiting the verdict of the court. For her, it is even more difficult because it is a court specialized in examining terrorism activities. She won the appeal to run as a candidate. «I am back in the game», she wrote on Twitter.
A bizarre game, because in 12 days (the time of the electoral campaign) there was no public debate, manifesto, talk shows, nor scandals… everything that marks a Western style campaigning. It was prohibited to be photographed, to be approached or interviewed – speaking with journalists meant being excluded from the voting.
How can the female Saudi candidates convince the voters in a country where there are no public arenas? In the only way possible – by the web. In Saudi Arabia, social networks are actually a safety valve with 90% of the population accessing Internet and 40% Twitter. It is one of the highest rates in the world.
In the end, Faida’s electoral campaign became a virtual chat room, even after the mall (the only social space for the Saudis) was declared off limits.
Faida is highly educated, with a PHD and working as a consultant, she has spent her life trying to come to terms with the system. However, Faida was not able to make it. The seat she was a candidate for was won by Abdul Azize al Ajlan with 126 votes. His headquarter was an enormous tent on a privately rented area where only men could enter and discuss politics. Women were absolutely excluded.
All the rival candidates of Reem, Faida and Loujain had refused to give interviews with them.
«It is not opportune Mrs Mona.» (another candidate on the phone)
«What do you mean?» (Mona El-Naggar)
«That it is not opportune, Mrs Mona.»
«How can women work with men in the municipal councils if they cannot speak?»
«I have nothing against listening to a woman’s voice, but a woman has her special place.»
«Let me explain, my dear. Our society has a particular way of doing things…»
Saudi Arabia has remained an absolute monarchy, governed by the Sharia and with a deeply-rooted history of institutionalized female discrimination.
In 2000, the Saudi monarchy signed the United Nations Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. In 2016, it was ranked 141st out of 145 countries regarding gender equality. Last April, facing the indignation of activists and fiery diplomatic arguments, it was elected a member country of the U.N.WOMEN – the United Nations Organism for Gender Equality and Female Emancipation. The forum that should set worldwide the rules for Gender Equality and Female Emancipation.
For the 21 women who had been able to win the coveted seats, the victory is a mockery, offensive and ridiculous. A few days after the elections, a decree forbid them from physically participating in the council sessions. They could only do it through a video conferencing.
«Can these elections be considered a step forward towards democracy in the realm?»
«I think that democracy already exists in our country.» (Press Conference on Election Day)