For the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia, a country that practices strict policy of segregation of the sexes, women are facing off against men in the elections for local councils. It is also the first time in the kingdom that women have the right to cast their votes.
Of the 7,000 candidates participating in the elections, almost 900 are women — including renowned activist Loujain Hathloul.
Hathloul was detained for 10 weeks in 2014 after she defied the gulf country’s ban on female drivers and live-streamed her entire car ride from United Arab Emirates to the kingdom’s border.
Although Saudi officials had initially blackballed her, she was able to clear her name for the ballot in a surprising reversal after using some connections within the ruling system to get authorities to reconsider the ban.
“Basically, I annoyed them,” Hathloul said. “I guess it worked. It’s amazing news.”
Unsurprisingly, the Saudi government has refrained from giving any explanations regarding the rollback. However, many believe that it all came down to the social media frenzy caused by the supporters of the activist.
“After I was banned, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t ignored,” she added. “This means, of course, making some noise.”
While it is unclear if the ban remains in place for other human right campaigners, Hathloul has claimed that her initial motivation to run for a council seat was simply to boost the number of women taking part.
Now that she is competing in Saturday’s election from a seat in Riyadh, she wonders if she could indeed pull off a win.
“The goal has changed,” Hathloul added. “I want to make a point. It’s a personal thing now. The municipal councils have nothing to do with the driving ban. The councils are just about fixing up the community. The driving ban is another fight. It's definitely not forgotten.”
She was also ranked 3rd in the list of Top 100 Most Powerful Arab Woman 2015.
Despite the permission to vote and compete, female candidates are still facing many regulations and restrictions on the campaign trail. However, in a country like Saudi Arabia, the participation of women in the elections is a step forward in itself.