As It Happens

Once arrested for driving a car, she's running in first Saudi election open to women

A Saudi woman who was arrested for driving a car, tells us why she's pushing the limits again by running in a municipal election. It's the first time the Kingdom is allowing women to vote and stand as candidates.

Meet Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the candidates running in Saudi Arabia's first election open to women

Loujain al-Hathloul is a Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist who is currently running in a Saudi municipal election. It's the first time the Kingdom is allowing women to vote and stand as candidates. (Facebook)

They can't drive cars or travel abroad without a male relative's permission. But on Saturday, for the first time, women in Saudi Arabia will be able to vote and run for office in municipal elections.

"It [is] a great opportunity for us to empower women. To teach them how it feels, and it is, to be equal to men and be equally, socially and politically responsible," Loujain al-Hathloul tells As It Happens host Carol Off. "A great chance for us to taste that."

Al-Hathloul is a prominent women's rights activist who is among 1000 female candidates running for office. At least on paper she is running. Until al-Hathloul has her ballot in hand she remains skeptical.

"That will be something that I will discover [on Saturday] but as for the order of bringing my name back into the list of candidates — it's there," al-Hathloul explains. "But will they actually do it? I don't know we'll see tomorrow."

​Al-Hathloul says that getting her name added to the primary list was relatively easy. But when the final list of candidates was released her name was missing. Only after she appealed the decision was her name added.

"I objected and they replied to the objection saying that the municipal council didn't have any objection to my file but other authorities, they didn't mention who they were, thought otherwise and they didn't state their reasoning," al-Hathloul explains.

She says that being eliminated actually strengthened her resolve to take a stand and run for office.

"I first applied as a candidate just to increase the number of women participation because after one week and half the outcome was very low and very disappointing," al-Hathloul reasons. "I decided to take it a step forward and actually go through the process to stop the unfairness and to reveal all the mistakes and the personal decisions made within the council or within the authorities. I decided to go through all this so it doesn't happen again in the next elections."

It's not the first time al-Hathloul has made headlines. In 2014 she was arrested for breaking Saudi Arabia's female driving ban, in an attempt to drive across the border from United Arab Emirates.

Critics argue the inclusive election is an empty gesture by the government, meant to avert media attention from the broad range of women's rights violations that persist within the kingdom.

While al-Hathloul admits her frustration with the government presenting the election "as a gift to the people" she hopes the "gift" will be appropriated to bring about change.

"It's a possible explanation, for the government to just polish its image throughout these elections. But regardless of these opinions, if it's true or not, we have to take the most out of it," al-Hathloul argues. "It's a way for them to ask us to calm down and just relax and wait for the decisions to come from them but that's what we don't want. We want our voice to count. We're part of this society and we're the one actually running it, truly."