“Saudi women are unstoppable”

Interviews with Hatoon al-Fassi, the activist who played a central role in organizing the first ever participation of women in municipal elections, Rasha Hefzi, one of the winning candidates, in the city of Jeddah, and Reem Asaad, who did not hide the joy of voting for the first time in her life. (Read more…)

Dr. Hatoon al-Fassi speaks at a political meeting for women in Riyadh. © NPR

Hatoon al-Fassi speaks at a political meeting for women in Riyadh capital of Saudi Arabia and one of the most conservative cities
© NPR

Historian, academic and writer Hatoon al-Fassi had been expecting this day for at least a decade: to see women as candidates and voters in elections. The result exceeded her expectations: 21 elected to municipal councils, with King Salman‘s “blessing”and the wrath of some religious leaders.

“I celebrated by having breakfast with my husband remembering all the past ten years efforts, mainly the beginning of it when I was working effortlessly in 2004 to convince the state and society with our right, while I was having an endangered pregnancy with my first child,” said Dr. Hatoon al-Fassi, in an email interview. “Through which time I was hospitalised because of the much stress I put myself at risk.”

If anyone can claim credit for the women’s vote is this university professor in Riyadh – the capital and one of the most conservative cities. Author of a study on women’s rights in the Arabic Nabataean kingdom (9th century BC), she inherited in 2004 the leadership of the Baladi Initiative, founded by Fawzia Al Hani. As general coordinator, she offered training and support to many candidates in what has been defined as a “historical process”.

A total of 1,486,477 men and 124,544 women registered as voters in these elections, which were approved by the late monarch, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, and got the green light by his successor. The number of male candidates reached 5938, more than the 979 female runners. All of them were competing for 2106 seats all over the country.

Among the women, at least 450 gave up the race. They had just 12 days to campaign and faced almost insurmountable obstacles. More than 100 were excluded by decision of the authorities under different reasons.

Neither men nor women could use their photos on posters. Women could not address men directly, only through a male “representative”, and any direct contact would be punished with heavy fines.

Dr. Hatoon al-Fassi explains why she was surprised – not only with the high number of elected female candidates but also with the high turnout (in some areas, women’s participation surpassed 80%, against 50% of men’s).

“The results exceeded my expectations, which were very minimal. That was because of the very short awareness efforts that the ministry in charge has made, and the limited room we had as a civil society organisation, and the constant obstacles women found in each part of the elections process. Which shows a determination on the Saudi woman’s part. She’s unstoppable. It is simply the readiness and eagerness of women and society to give it a chance and participate in the affairs of the country.”

A member of a traditional Sufi family from Mecca, descendent of the Sharifi house of Muhammad, Prophet of Islam, and not a follower of the backward Wahhabi doctrine dominant in her country, Hatoon al-Fassi regrets that male candidates “were using some religious phrases out of context to discourage voters from voting for women“. Although “that didn’t succeed everywhere, the constrains remain immense”.

She remains confident: “Women are not letting go of these obstacles. We have seen it at the Shura council [advisors of the King] with the slandering that some members received for raising serious issues of discrimination including the driving ban.”

“[Now] these women are taking the slanders to court and increasingly are receiving more and more support and these women are learning more and more. Similarly, I believe will be the case with councilour women.” Many people, men and women, ignored him and other hardliners.

What are now the immediate challenges after the elections? “We have many issues, but first of all is the guardianship system [or Muhrim – father, husband, brother or son have to accompany women in public, allow them to travel and attest their legal contracts], the codification of family law, driving ban and reaching the decision making positions, ministerial in particular,” clarified Dr. Hatoon al-Fassi.

On the interest of pursuing a political career, this Saudi lady to whom other women look up to for inspiration says: “I won’t mind, though there are no much option. All the above are priorities, but we are dividing the task among women groups in Saudi, of which I make part. Although we are enjoying the moment, we are not ceasing to carry on for our full rights.”

Rasha Fefzi addredsing her supporters in a tent used for the campaign, in Jeddah, considered "the most cosmopolitan of the Saudi cities"- ©Tasneem AlsultanA|NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Rasha Fefzi addressing her supporters in a tent used for the electoral campaign, in Jeddah, considered “the most cosmopolitan of the Saudi cities”
©Tasneem Alsultan | National Geographic

One of the winning candidates was Rasha Hefzi, director of Think Link N Cooperation, 38 year-old, single and childless. She lives in Jeddah, a modern commercial hub and “the most liberal city” of the kingdom.

Her company provides various services, including surveys and campaigns to promote socio-economic development. Therefore, it is not surprising when she says, in a telephone conversation: “We used every means at our disposal: social networks, outdoors, call centres, e-marketing, knocking door to door…”

Rasha Hefzi is actively campaigning for causes like feminism, inter-religious dialogue and democracy since she was 15. A member of several non-governmental organisations such as the World Assembly for Muslim Youth, she also helped to create several community groups and associations. “My priority was and continues to be encouraging greater civic contribution”, she said.

“It interests me that people understand the importance of participating in public life. Women are already active in many spheres, particularly in the private sector. [The number of those who reached the labor market increased by 40% between 2010 and 2015, but women still account for only 16% of the total labor force, according to Fortune magazine.] In Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, they are remarkable figures, although discrete, not looking to attract attention.”

Sex segregation remains a reality, but Rasha Hefzi prefers to value the increasing number of women in the labour market. “I was elected thanks to the votes of many men, some of them entrepreneurs,” she notes. “There are good indicators, and I want to help empowering women through knowledge, know-how and experience. Saudi Arabia is not a monolithic state. Each region has its specificities.”

Reem Asaad: "My country is heading toward more universal ‘norms’. Also I'm more attached to the future of my country. I believe that when things go through bleak moments then the sun will rise brighter. This is how history is made.” © All Rights Reserved

Reem Asaad: “My country is heading toward more universal ‘norms’. Also I’m more attached to the future of my country. I believe that when things go through bleak moments then the sun will rise brighter. This is how history is made”
© Courtesy of Reem Asaad

To implement a master plan to control the urban planning was one of the electoral promises of Rasha Hefzi, an outspoken critic of the sanitation system after heavy rains ruptured sewage in Jeddah, last November, killing more than 10 people.

Among those who gave her a vote of confidence is Reem Asaad a financial adviser at Saudi Fransi Capital Corporation, acclaimed by the Arabian Business Magazine as one of the “100 most influential Arab women” (3rd place).

With a master’s degree in Business administration and 14 years of experience in Finance, Reem Asaad was among the first women appointed to positions formerly occupied only by men in the powerful National Commerce Bank.

These are her thoughts on the election’ day: “It was a very quiet Saturday morning. In my district, the traffic was almost zero and the poll center was no exception. I was the only visitor at that hour. The process was clear and organised. Took 2 minutes. I had my daughter (5 year-old) slip the vote in the box for me. My feelings: my country is heading toward more universal ‘norms’. Also I’m more attached to the future of my country. I believe that when things go through bleak moments then the sun will rise brighter. This is how history is made.”

“It’s a process. The Saudi public has been absent from politics and public participation for decades. We cannot expect this to change their attitudes over a few weeks. Anything that involves women stirs opinion and debate. Some claimed that previous municipal elections did very little to help change local municipalities, and attain objectives. There is a lack of faith in effecting change.”

Were these elections solely the follow-up of the Saudi women’s struggle for more rights or are they part of a wider social-political process in the kingdom? “Both, of course”, replied the financial adviser. And what will be the next “battle(s)” for Saudi women? “You will know as they come up.”

Would she consider running for a political post in the future? “Yes, but not just yet. I am too busy with my professional life.” For now, she celebrates a personal victory. In a tweet that went viral, she wrote: “Voted! For the 1st time in my adult public life in #SaudiArabia. You may find this laughable but hey, it’s a start. #saudiwomenvote

The queens of Nabataea

Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi, author of 'Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia: Nabataea' stands with her book during an interview at her residence in Riyadh © Reuters

Hatoon al-Fassi, author of Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia: Nabataea, stands with her book at her residence, in Riyadh
© Reuters

Hatoon al-Fassi is the author of Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia: Nabataea. In this book, centred on the Bedouin and urbanized state with its capital in Petra (present Jordan), annexed by the Roman Empire in AD 106, she proves that women had rights that were later withdrawn due to a masculine interpretation of sacred texts.

The Nabataean queens, says the Saudi historian, were free, powerful (especially economically) and visible – their faces almost without veil, were engraved in coins, for example. “There were Muslim theologians who misinterpreted the origins of Islamic law”,” Hatoon al-Fassi told Reuters news agency.

“Many of the practices relating to the [submission] status of women are based on local traditions. They are not necessarily Islamic. Nor are Arab, in essence. The Greek women were the ones who needed tutors to sign any contract. The Saudi male guardianship law is not at all Islamic but an adaptation of Greek and Roman laws.”

The main rules of the Shariah (Islamic law) began to be set in the 9th century AD in the territories conquered by the sword where a ruling Arab elite dominated non-Muslim and non-Arab populations. The main basis of this legislation stems from oral traditions (Sunnah) attributed to Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, and imposed on believers by Muslim jurists as “divine” and “unquestionable”.

The Nabataean kingdom, whose Arab identity has been questioned by some conservatives, only started receiving attention after 1812, when Petra was “discovered” by the Swiss geographer Johann Ludwig (or Jean Louis) Burckhardt (1784-1917). Today, it is one of the world’s leading tourist destinations, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This article, now updated, was originally published in the Portuguese newspaper EXPRESSO, on December 19, 2015

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