Until the opening weeks of December, two countries in the world still denied women the right to vote: Vatican City, where the franchise is restricted to cardinals; and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Now there is only one. (Technically, yes, Vatican City is a country.) On December 12, the Saudi women in the photo gallery below voted, joining other countrywomen for the first elections open to women in the kingdom’s 83-year history. Each of these women, it is safe to assume, cast her ballot for herself. The sole Saudi offices decided by public vote are seats on local councils, and for the 2015 elections, following a promise made by the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Saudi women were permitted both to vote for their council members and to run as candidates—as long as they follow the rules.
Those rules, like the election itself—like almost everything in Saudi Arabia that involves politics, change, religious dictates, and the proper sphere of women—were extraordinary and fraught. All campaign events were required to ensure complete separation between women and men. A female candidate who wanted to address men at her own event had to speak from behind a partition or have a man speak for her. Campaign literature could not include photos of candidates, women or men; it’s understood that during the last elections some Saudis just chose men who appeared by their beard length to be severe Islamic conservatives, and in much of Saudi Arabia it’s still considered unacceptable for a woman to be photographed at all.
They’re not much of anything, these council seats: that’s what you hear many Saudis say, especially many educated younger women who, despite what an outsider might assume, have not been enthusiastic supporters of this first-ever chance to vote. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, run absolutely by one enormous royal family, the Al Sauds, under the leadership of Abdullah’s brother King Salman. Municipal councils oversee only local matters, like street repair and sewage service, and a lot of the time they do a lousy job even at that. When we asked 30-year-old Saudi photographer Tasneem Alsultan to visit some of the new candidates in early December, in advance of an article in February’s National Geographic Magazine about the changing lives of Saudi women, Alsultan was intrigued but said that, like many of her friends, she hadn’t bothered to register to vote.
Why not? Too many impediments, she and other women said, and for positions of no consequence. Word went out, once women-only signup centers opened in girls’ schools, that the process could be daunting: multiple trips back and forth between registration office and home, all to produce the right identity and residence documentation, and all requiring the help of a male family member or hired driver because in Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive.
“Everybody was so cynical about the whole thing,” Alsultan said by phone, as she was first heading out to meet candidates. “Like they’re just giving us a pacifier to help us be quiet.”
Aljazi Alhossaini, businesswoman and retired university administrator, Diriyah district of Riyadh
Then she set to work, and something happened. The women in her photos include a physician, a university administrator, a homemaker, a hospital optometrist, an architect. They are among the thousand women who decided not only to register as voters but to declare themselves the nation’s first female candidates for office. A few are old enough to be Alsultan’s grandmother. In many parts of Saudi Arabia, women that age and younger remember a time when a woman was issued no identity card of her own, when her birth was not noted in family histories, when it was considered shameful for a man to speak her name aloud.
Now, in September 2015, a retired Saudi professor named Sahar Nasief could text to America the just-snapped cellphone photo of an ancient lady in a black abaya and headscarf, her wheelchair rolled up to an official’s table, signing the document that would let her cast a vote.
My mom, read the text. Naela Mohamed Salih Nasief. She’s 95. The eldest to register in Jeddah. Taking a deep breath can’t believe she’s done it.
“I’m inspired,” Alsultan said, a few days in. “When I was asking them why most of you are in your 40s, 50s or 60s—with full-time jobs, or retiring soon—they said they realize that when it comes to your time, and your daughter’s time, we’ll be able to say, ‘We set a path.’”
Amal Mohamd Badreldin Alsnary, pediatrician, Riyadh
Haifa Alhababi. architect and university professor, Riyadh
Kadhra Almubarak, girls’ youth club developer, Safwa
Sameera Abualshamat, homemaker, Jeddah
Wardah Alsafwani, hospital optometrist, Qatif