Saturday, December 19, 2015

Women Making History in Saudi Arabia

Saturday, December 12, 2015, will be remembered for years to come as a truly amazing day for women in Saudi Arabia as two incredible things happened.

#1 - Saudi women were able to vote as well as run for public office for the first times in their lives.

#2 - 8,264 women gathered together in the capital city of Riyadh to break the existing world record for the largest human awareness ribbon formation.

A young Saudi woman casts her vote for the first time in her life.


Saudi women were able to claim victory, winning 20 elected positions even though registered female voters (130,000) accounted for only a mere 10 per cent of the country's male electorate (1.35 million).  It wasn't easy for women to make it to the polls.  There were many obstacles in the way.

In order to register to vote, women were required to provide national ID cards (many women do not have them), proof of residence (almost all Saudi women live with their legal male guardians, and residency documentation is in the man's name), plus there were limited times to register and limited knowledge by district clerks to help women with the registration process.  Another huge problem was that voting was only allowed on one day, and inconsiderate and impractical policy in a world where women cannot drive.  The cards were definitely stacked against women from the get go.

Saudi female candidate Naseema Assada  (Photo: NPR)

For those Saudi women who wished to run for elected office, a few more new rules were enacted which made their campaigns even more difficult.  Gender segregation is strictly enforced here, so female candidates' campaign sites had to be for women only.  They were also not allowed to interact or speak directly with men in an effort to gain votes, and they could not display their photos in their promotional materials (neither could men).  In addition the Grand Mufti (the country's highest ranking religious leader) spoke out against women participating in the elections and running for office - the general consensus among many being that women belong at home and not in public life.  This resulted in some backlash against women, especially in tribal areas. 

Prior to the elections, some women (many of whom are writers and activists) were disqualified from running for office, with no reasons provided and no time to challenge their dismissal.   Female candidates accounted for 1/6 of the total candidates.  Despite all these obstacles, on voting day female voters turned out in an astonishing 80% rate in many districts, leaving the men's turnout average in the dust.  And while women clearly had a very slim chance of winning at all, another surprise is that some of the victorious female candidates were elected in tribal areas.   Even though the elected positions are all at the local level (city councils) and naysayers express doubts that women's participation signals any real change at all and is nothing more than window dressing, many women are excited at the prospect of finally having a voice, as little as that may be.  It is a step in the right direction, even though this might be considered taking baby steps toward women achieving equality in this society.

Many Saudi women took their kids along to the voting stations to witness the historic event.


This past weekend I traveled to Riyadh to participate in my 2nd Guinness World Record breaking event - forming the world's largest human awareness ribbon chain highlighting the fight against breast cancer.  I had previously participated in the very first breast cancer record breaking event in Jeddah back in 2010.

The event was held at the football stadium of Princess Nora University, a public women's institution of higher learning.  The final attendance count was a little short of the goal of 10,000 participants, but none-the-less, it was still enough to set the new world record.  I was part of a group of about 10 women, including among others, my friend and fellow blogger Laura of Blue Abaya; human rights activist and photographer Samia El Moslimany; TV presenters and sisters Cyma and Nihad Aziz; and architect Anna Laura Petrucci, who is herself a breast cancer survivor.  We were all seated in the VIP section, rubbing elbows with at least four Saudi princesses, who are all greatly involved in supporting breast cancer awareness.

Photo: Edited and Graphics Added by Laura of Blue Abaya

I have to say that this event, called 10KSA, was so much more pleasant than the previous event in Jeddah because of the weather.  Under the guidance of Princess Reema, it was obvious that much was learned from the first event to make this one run much smoother.  It was well run and organized and didn't seem to take nearly as long to form the ribbon and set the record as it did before in Jeddah.

10KSA official scarf designs 2015

All women who came were provided with pink fuchsia scarves to wear.  One of the rules for the world record is that all participants must be wearing the same color.  There were four different designs that I saw - the main body of the scarves were the solid pink and the ends had different designs that were chosen from entries in a contest.   The designs all incorporated Arabian influence with the breast cancer theme.

Witnessing the sea of women outfitted in matching pink, coming together for such a worthy cause was extremely exciting and meaningful.  Seeing the pride, motivation, and determination of the women of all ages in Saudi Arabia was quite a profound and inspiring experience.

The excitement builds as thousands of women wait for the Guinness judge's decision.  (Photo: Blue Abaya)

Now just think about both of these history making events for a moment.  In a country where women are still denied the right to drive cars themselves, logistically speaking, both of these accomplishments required immense planning, determination, and effort.  Yet both of these events were tremendous successes.  It just goes to show that when Saudi women put their minds to something, you better get out of their way!

P.S. - I almost forgot to mention that the worldwide transport company Uber provided FREE transportation to the women of Saudi Arabia on that day if they were going to vote or were attending the Pink Ribbon event.  So a big "Thank You to Uber" for their support and generosity in making these events successful.


  1. I could not be more impressed. Congratulations to the women of Saudi Arabia who went above and beyond in order to accomplish these two goals.
    So encouraging.

    1. Thank you, Lori. The women of Saudi Arabia have got it going on, despite all the obstacles put in their way!

  2. WOW!!!! This is amazing. You are part of this history. I am proud of you women.

    1. Hi Gaelyn - I am so proud to have been a part of it. Saudi women are phenomenal!

  3. Congratulations! Best regards to you Susie.