Women In Municipal Election

Posted January 25, 2016 from Saudi Arabia

Almost 20 women are now serving in local municipalities since December. This has been the first time women participated as candidates and voters. And this is only the 3rd municipal elections in the country after 2005 and 2011 elections. The win, for this reason, is significant. Women voter turnout were significantly higher than men and almost 80% in few rurual regions. It demonstrates women's ambitious desire to participate in civic engagement.

There are at least 5.2 million eligible voters –1 million men and 130,000 women registered to vote earlier. Current population stands at 31 million, roughly a third are not eligible to vote as they belong to confusing catagory “expatriate communities”. And this category includes seasonal migrants, long-term residents (living for 30+ years) and local-born-foreigners (children born and raised here but to foreign parents), and children of citizen mothers with foreign fathers.

Roughly, 981 female candidates and 6,000 male candidates were vying for 2100 local council seats open for elections, the rest are appointed. The voter turnout overall was as both male and female candidates struggle to raise awareness.

Many women and men did not vote because they believe it does not bring any change; many feel these are cosmetic changes to conceal real problems. And their concerns are legitimate as well – corruption, bigotry attitude, laziness has no gender and it’s important to be vigilant and remain defiant, regardless. Some would even suggest that women were pre-selected to win and the ‘voting’ part was a political façade.

Female candidates include senior scientists, chemists, businesswomen, historians, community organizers. The municipal responsibilities include public services in limited localities with no legislative power. However, even this position, in my view, is powerful enough to garner support and create change. The ripple effect is the metric to watch out. It would be interesting to observe how these women shape the notions of power and what it means to be in a leadership position.

One of the winning candidates (with a disability) is advocating for the needs of people with disabilities are integrated in the urban planning. The issues promised to be solved includes improving parks, creating youth centers, access to more cultural activities, removing potholes, improved day care centers, developing a greener city and healthier community. While it’s a promising, socially crafty message to say I am going to improve amenities in ‘low-income neighborhood’ – what low income neighborhood and the rest of the city inhabitants need is authentic engagement to help them acknowledge their civic responsibility and actualization of civic actions. What we need is wider, inclusive participation of ordinary community members in co-creation; I don’t want the municipal officials to bear the entire responsibility of enriching our public amenities. Communities should be able to participate and improve public service effortlessly. It’s hard to even organize a public park clean up! Our growing urban population needs cities to re-wire so that citizens can efficiently interact with authorities.

The Road Ahead

Women elected in rural regions have a treacherous road ahead as municipality alone cannot solve crucial infrastructure issues. Women commute long ways to reach public facilities, attend classes, and to give birth. Social innovation can play a strong, positive role if elected men and women work together with the local community.

Decades of government subsidized services and low private sector share of our economy has made us over-reliant on official bodies to solve our basic problems. With low oil prices and cut in subsidized servies, this is the best time to rekindle our imagination and work together as a nation in building our nation.

Women still has to wake up to a reality of guardianship every morning. Women cannot marry, study or work without her close male’s consent on paper. It may not affect every, even majority of women’s life negatively, but it does for few other women, those few ‘other’ women we do not hear from…or we do not want to hear from.. because we’re so comfortable with our own narratives of few ‘other’ women or wrapped up in our bubble of bliss.

A recent change in law was direct result of 150 women appointed in the Shura Council few years ago. Due to their advocacy and debate, a new card would be issued to widow and divorced women to manage their ‘affairs’ without a male guardian.

This is not just power on paper but a real, immediate positive impact on the lives of women. The card enables women to authorize and register for many services which otherwise would’ve required a male interacting with public services or granting permission. Imagine you have to admit your children to school, and your ex-husband is out of country or does not give you his signature, or does not facilitate anything on time? That’s exactly what women has going through for years – and I have seen many divorced women undergoing immense test of faith and courage to maintain a decent level of interaction with their ex-husbands. At times, battling another battle with their ex to empower their lives.

Top-Down Approach / Bottom-Up Approach or both?

Imagine if women were organizing and campaigning and there were no official announcement of inclusion. What would happen? These women would need to struggle twice as much to gain acceptance. Top-down directional change works because men accept it readily, though this is not an overnight mindset change but an acceptance of an official stance. However, in business for example, companies where men are empathetic and acknowledge the value women brings into ecosystem, the ‘wall or barrier’ has been removed by men themselves. So we have women who never felt discriminated, undervalued working in the private sector. The change did not require an official stamp or advocacy.

In 2011, one of the candidates in an entrepreneurial event shared a moment when she joined the local business chamber and she couldn’t understand what men meant by ‘GDP’ and how she embraced the challenge of learning. Back then, she also mentioned about learning to ‘lobby’. The winning of women seemed more palpable to me as the groundwork for mobilizing, raising awareness, engaging potential candidates started a long time ago and the credit goes to a group of women who tirelessly devoted resources and energy.

The participation of women would even energize male candidates to understand and compete more efficiently. Yet I would not like to see foreign style PR campaigns led by foreign PRs, excessive spending to garner attention or false promises on social media. Toxic politics is something we should learn to avoid looking at our counterparts in and beyond the region. Politics should be efficient, impactful, spiritual and compassionate. Not a business or PR. Our addiction to appear in regional and foreign media - as politicians, academics, ministers or a entrepreneurs - and gauging our success by the number of our media appearances demonstrates our lack of imagination and honestly, quite self-limiting.

Crucial questions

Women outnumber men in tertiary education yet the only cabinet level minister appointed back in 2009 in Education Ministry was removed. The question is, why so many educated, in fact, as many would point out - over-educated women are vying for simple municipal seats when they are experienced and educated enough to embrace cabinet level position?

Do you have the courage to engage and empower children of saudi mothers with foreign fathers to senior political positions? Or more daring, do we have the courage, compassion and forsight to acknowledge the untapped power within ‘local-born foreigners’ to participate fully in as a municipal official? I think we still have a some uncomfortable paths walk..

Women in power ensure an open discussion on gender needs, a sacred opportunity for men to empathize and learn, an efficient way to reach a decision. Society only thrives when we redintegrate women back into every sphere of life.

As more women into decision making roles – in business, politics and communities – a section of society will indulge in false nostalgia for a time where few or no women were seen, heard or accepted. I am grateful I will not be one of them.

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