JEDDAH, 29 September 2004 — Three Saudi women have nominated themselves as candidates in the upcoming municipal elections. There has not yet been, however, a clear decision as to whether women will be allowed to participate in the elections. Nadia Bakhurji, Fatin Bundagji and Fatma Al-Khereiji all spoke to Arab News in exclusive interviews, discussing their aims and platforms.
All agreed that they want to improve the social life of Saudis in individual neighborhoods by building social centers for young people, providing clean and safe parks which all family members can use, reducing water wastage and ensuring fire protection in public buildings, especially those used by women and girls.
Bakhurji, an architect who has had her own interior design business in Riyadh since 1989, was the first to announce her candidacy last week. She issued a platform of issues that she will run on.
“I’ve always been interested in doing something for the public,” said Bakhurji, “so when the municipal elections were announced, I thought it would be a good opportunity to try and do something.”
Having studied architecture in the United Kingdom, Bakhurji naturally would like to improve the quality of Riyadh’s new buildings. “I really think it’s important to raise the standards of design and the quality of buildings. The city is full of ugly concrete buildings from the 1970s and 1980s. Something must be done to change that.”
The safety and well-being of children should be emphasized. She pointed out that children’s safety is often forgotten here. “If children are in a fire drill at school, they won’t have a clue what they should do,” she said.
Fatin Bundagji has considerable experience in organizing events for women. Indeed as director of Women’s Empowerment and Research at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry for the past six years, she has organized events attended by some 8,000 Saudi women who wanted to learn how to run a business. As the second woman to announce her candidacy in the upcoming elections, Bundagji says, “I’m a patriot. I consider it my duty to run.”
Her platform focuses mainly on young people who she feels have been neglected and left to their own devices, usually at great detriment to themselves.
“What do young boys have to do here? They hang out in shopping malls and on the streets harassing women. I don’t blame the young people. I blame their parents for neglecting them. Especially the fathers. They’re always busy working and spend very little time with their sons,” explained Bundagji in a recent interview. Her solution to this social problem would be to establish youth community centers in each district of Jeddah that would serve as a meeting place where young men’s energy could be put to good use.
“These would be places where they can meet and discuss issues and be involved in community projects. They need to learn to bond with each other and with the older generation,” said Bundagji. “They need to learn to be team players. Unfortunately, they’re not taught that at school.”
Bundagji also wants to focus on making neighborhoods more hospitable by establishing parks that are actually used by inhabitants every day. “We formed a non-governmental organization called ‘Friends of Jeddah Parks’ around three months ago. We’ve already presented three projects to the Jeddah Municipality for the transformation of three pieces of land owned by the city into public parks. The parks themselves would be funded by private companies, and would have walking areas, play areas for children and a sitting area for older citizens,” revealed Bundagji. “We’re still waiting for the green light from the municipality.”
Although Al-Khreiji, who has been involved in special education, will formally launch her candidacy next week, she shared her platform with Arab News: “My main concern is how to restore life to communities. People in a neighborhood do not know each other. We need to create a spirit of cooperation between neighbors.”
She also wants to focus on issues of specific groups of women that are often overlooked. “I want to focus on single, divorced and widowed women’s issues, their problems and needs. I want to help ordinary women, not the financially privileged.”
Some of the candidates, and even some who are still deciding whether to run, attended a symposium on municipal elections held last Saturday in Riyadh organized by the Saudi Management Association.
All said they left the symposium feeling encouraged and upbeat about the participation of Saudi women in the elections. Yet nagging questions such as how candidates without access to money would be able to run, and how much power the councils will ultimately have remained in the minds of many.
“We need to establish a campaign fund for candidates,” said Najat Al-Shafae of Seihat in the Eastern Province. “Candidates need two types of support: Financial and professional. We need coaching in how to campaign, speak publicly and present our platforms. This is all new to us, both men and women.”
An English teacher, Shafae is still not sure whether she’ll run in the elections. She says that the unclear picture of women’s participation and the fact that she doesn’t know where she would find the money to fund a campaign have kept her from making a final decision.
The driving force behind women taking part in the elections is Hatoon Al-Fassi, a professor of history at King Saud University in Riyadh. She has been writing opinion columns on the issue, networking with women, and has helped put together many of the platforms being put forth by female candidates.
“I still believe that there is a chance for women to take part in the elections,” said Al-Fassi in an interview. “I won’t give up until the government clearly says we are excluded.”
Bakhurji says she thinks women have to be included because only they can relate completely to the problems that women and children face. “My fear is that men aren’t sensitive enough to women’s and children’s issues.”
Bundagji is pragmatic: “I respect authority and the structure of government. I believe that the government supports us 100 percent, but if they don’t give us the green light this time, I will be quiet.” In the meantime, she hopes that all Saudi women will be excited by the prospect of participating in elections.
“I refuse to be a victim. I want to serve my people and country,” she says, adding, “We need to make sure that we have the right tools in our hands to elect officials properly. We must elect people who are achievers, not just people who have connections. We need candidates who have timelines for projects and who will actually deliver them on time.”
Another woman who briefly considered running in the elections, told Arab News that participating in the elections was a religious right of women. “I’m not nominating myself because I’m already very busy with the National Human Rights Association, but I am demanding women’s right to run because it is a legal (Shariah) right of ours,” said Suhaila Hammad. She believes that a woman should run if she finds herself able to contribute and make a difference, but should not run just for the sake of running or because as a woman she has the right to. “This is a new experience and if we fail, we will lose society’s confidence,” she pointed out.
What They Are Promising
The Infrastructure and Environment
• Water conservation.
• Building safety and fire safety — especially at home, in schools and women’s buildings.
• Recycling to conserve resources.
• Roads and general environmental conditions.
• Cleanliness and cleaning up neighborhoods.
• Safety of general construction in inhabited neighborhoods to reduce health hazards and accidents.
Social Structure and Community Care
• Public awareness campaign to be made in the media and through schools and other government institutes in order to establish awareness concerning safety, health, waste of resources such as water and power, children’s road safety and general good habits in caring for our communities. Encourage children’s awareness through special programs and art competitions in schools. These competitions would be coordinated with the relevant government departments.
• Encourage investment in public projects which add value to the community and create healthy outlets for society, children and adults.
• Allocating land for public parks and open green areas for families, ensuring the parks are kept clean and usable.
• Creating community centers for young people and women. These centers would help our children and young people with extracurricular activities to expand their awareness and involve them in caring for their communities.
• Creating satellite public libraries within our communities to encourage people to read and increase their knowledge.
— Additional reporting by Maha Akeel