Saudi Women: Elections Are One Step Forward On A Long Road : Parallels Saudi Arabian women made history by voting and winning public office for the first time. But there are still many obstacles to an equal role in public life.
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Saudi Women: Elections Are One Step Forward On A Long Road

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Saudi Women: Elections Are One Step Forward On A Long Road

Saudi Women: Elections Are One Step Forward On A Long Road

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Women in Saudi Arabia still are not allowed to drive. But this weekend, Saudi women made history. They campaigned for and won seats in local municipal elections for the first time. NPR's Deborah Amos met some of the winners in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The first Saudi women to vote celebrated with hugs and selfies, and lingered at the polls to share the day. Women won only 20 seats out of more than 2,000 in local councils across the country, but it was more than any of the candidates expected. One winner is Lama al-Suleiman, a prominent businesswoman and British-trained biochemist. She says the toughest campaign battle was fighting tradition in a male-dominated society.

LAMA AL-SULEIMAN: The men have been very cynical, so I find that women mimic what the men say. The big father figure at home says well, what did the municipal council do before? It's a very patriarchal society here.

AMOS: Suleiman has support from men. She was elected twice to the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, and now serves as vice president of the business organization. In the local municipal election, she ran a highly professional social media campaign to appeal to a wider group of voters.

SULEIMAN: These have been much more difficult. They come from more conservative backgrounds. But I have big hopes for men. They have always been there for me to win.

AMOS: Another winner, 38-year-old Rasha Hefzi, also had support from young men and young women. She ran and won as the youth candidate, a local activist who organized an initiative when floods devastated Jeddah and the government was slow to act. In campaign rallies for women, she lured voters with free kabobs and cotton candy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMOS: But women candidates were forbidden to talk to male voters face-to-face, so a group a popular stand-up comedians campaigned for her and performed in person at all-male rallies. Male votes were crucial to her win.

That's the real breakthrough?

RASHA HEFZI: Exactly, and that's what I've been telling them today. Any woman who won here in this council, it's equal to 10 men because there's a wall that we are trying to break.

AMOS: But the wall is still there, say women who boycotted the election or didn't bother to register at all. One is 26-year-old Raneen Bukhari. She organizes a yearly art show in Jeddah to encourage young talent. A more open form of expression, she says, than politics in the kingdom or the vote.

RANEEN BUKHARI: I'm really happy that it's happening. It's exciting, and they're getting public attention and they believe they're going to make change, and they might. It's just not important to me.

AMOS: What's important, she says, is to lift the restrictions on women's lives in an absolute monarchy that limits politics for everyone.

BUKHARI: Like, we can't do anything for, like, human rights, you know? It's just like, no. You can't have a political party, you know? Like, no. These things - you're asking for trouble.

AMOS: A historic moment in Saudi Arabia? The women who won the vote say it's a beginning. Change can only come when women have a voice. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Jeddah.

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