Ladies First: Saudi Arabia's First Female Candidates

By Katie Maher

Islamic law, called Shari'a in Arabic, is enforced more strictly in Saudi Arabia than anywhere else in the world. The nation has faced much international scrutiny for its harsh execution of this legal system. Though Islamic law does not necessarily or inherently prescribe misogyny and gender inequality, under Saudi Arabia's current interpretation and implementation of Shari'a, the fundamental rights of women are severely limited. For instance, a woman is denied the ability to drive, cannot go out alone in public, or even dress freely.  

Despite the many ways in which Saudi Arabia limits women’s rights, the nation took a considerable step towards improving gender equality in 2015, when women were allowed to vote and run for office for the first time in history. 

On October 14 of this year, the New York Times released a documentary titled “Ladies First: Saudi Arabia’s First Female Candidates” in an attempt to give viewers a behind the scenes look at the historic election. 

The documentary follows three female candidates who ran in the first Saudi election, and the challenges they faced in the process of breaking down barriers in such a culturally and politically conservative country. The short film is described as possessing an “authenticity rarely seen in films about women in Saudi,” according to an anthropology student who viewed “Ladies First” at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York.

New York Times video journalist and reporter Mona El-Naggar directed the project, and faced difficulties of her own as a female journalist working in the Middle East. She intentionally worked with a male videographer on the documentary, because of the numerous spaces where she wasn’t allowed access as a woman. It was also no easy task for El-Naggar to find women to interview, due to the intense censorship, mistrust of foreigners, and, in certain areas, a lack of female independence in the country. By speaking with the Times, “they risk going to jail,” El-Naggar explains. 

One woman from Riyadh, however, eagerly spoke with the journalists and contributed to the documentary. Her name is Reem, and although she spoke cautiously out of fear of offending anyone with her words, she gave El-Naggar and her crew an honest insight into what this election means for Saudi women. 

In total, the documentary follows three women running in local elections: a traditionalist, an activist, and an optimist. Each woman had a different attitude towards Saudi politics, and the women varied in their levels of conservatism. One female participant said, “I can smell the scent of victory,” which shows that many Saudi women are demanding an active role in their government and making strides towards positive change.  

While this election marks an important event for women’s suffrage, it also draws attention to the many ways in which Saudi Arabia still needs to improve its treatment of women in society. Even though women could vote and run in this election, they were unable to campaign, which greatened their disadvantage against male candidates. El-Naggar, who has worked as a reporter for ten years in the Middle East, says that promises of reform such as this 2015 election rarely lead to permanent change. In such a tradition-based society, changes of this sort are so slow moving, that it makes people question whether progress is being made at all. 

The fact that more than 900 female candidates ran in the kingdom’s first nationwide election shows that women want to participate, if given the chance. While Saudi Arabia still has a lot of work to do before achieving gender equality and true female suffrage, brave women such as the three in this documentary give others the hope that such equality can one day be realized.