RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Those of you who listen to the show regularly know I was in Saudi Arabia last week covering important elections there. They were local elections, not so much important in and of themselves. After all, how much power do elected officials have in an autocratic monarchy? But they were significant because women were allowed to vote for the first time and run for office. It was a decision that the late king, King Abdullah, made back in 2011. And it came to be in large part because of women like our next guest. Her name is Hatoon al-Fassi. She's a professor of women's studies, and she is the general coordinator of the Baladi Initiative, a women's rights group in Saudi Arabia. I met her in Riyadh, and she happens to be in Washington, D.C. now. So we've brought her into our studios to talk about what the elections mean going forward. Hatoon, thanks so much for coming in.
HATOON AL-FASSI: Thank you, Rachel. It's really a pleasure.
MARTIN: The final election results show that 21 women won seats in these local elections. There were 2,100 seats open. So the rest of those went to men. That's a pretty low percentage then for the female candidates who won. How do you see it? Are you pleased with the results?
AL-FASSI: I see it as a great success. We need to put everything into the right context. And you're talking about Saudi context, where we were not expecting any woman to win. So having 21 women winning is just beyond our expectations.
MARTIN: How do you think the campaign went? Because it was difficult for these female candidates. They couldn't even talk to male voters. They couldn't even have a conversation with them or give a campaign speech. And that put them at a real disadvantage I imagine.
AL-FASSI: Exactly. We have obstacles on registration. We have obstacles on candidates finding their licenses and filling them with the right criteria and then the obstacles of reaching the voters because you don't have any channel in which you would know who your voters are. And as a voter, I don't have also access to my candidate except knowing their names.
MARTIN: So this is obviously an important symbolic victory for women. But what does it change practically in Saudi Arabia? What happens now?
AL-FASSI: Now you have women who are in the public eye for the first time, where they have to deal with real issues of their community.
MARTIN: But these are very local positions, right? They're kind of neighborhood councils. And it's about, you know, putting sidewalks in or opening a community center. Will these women be able to bring up bigger issues that are important to them, like the social rules that govern women's behavior, the guardianship rules, which require men's permission to carry out daily activities?
AL-FASSI: I believe that these local decisions are very important. Having women could change many discriminatory rules that deals with women financial status, women's health, women's well-being. Dealing with corruption is a number-one issue that you would address if you are dealing with neighborhood issues. So municipal councils' level of decision-making is not insignificant. It is very significant in my view.
MARTIN: So you still see an opening happening right now. You think it's a good time to be a woman in Saudi Arabia?
AL-FASSI: I have to be hopeful (laughter). I don't have another option actually. I have to keep on the optimism and build on it. I'm trying to look at the positive side of all these changes with elections and the winning and all of that. This is a good moment of reflecting on victories. And it gives me a hope that a change can happen really in my lifetime (laughter).
MARTIN: Hatoon al-Fassi is a professor of women's history. She's also the general coordinator of the women's rights group the Baladi Initiative. Thanks so much for talking with us.
AL-FASSI: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.