Last updated: 13 December, 2015

Woman’s life-long struggle leads to Saudi election breakthrough

Her uncle told her not to do it, but Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi ignored his advice and ran for election.

On Sunday she became the first woman to be declared the winner of a municipal council seat in the male-dominated Gulf kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

“My whole life has been a struggle,” said Oteibi, from the small bedouin town of Mudrika outside the holy city of Mecca.

In an exclusive interview with AFP, she said she faced tough competition — including from her own relatives who were also standing — but still won a seat with 68 votes, 20 more than her rivals.

That was thanks to the support of women, even though Oteibi said she didn’t actively campaign.

Her biggest supporter is her husband, said the mother of two boys.

Oteibi, a teacher with a down-to-earth manner, comes from a family of local politicians including her uncle who was elected in the last all-male municipal ballot in 2011.

“When he heard of me running for a seat he told me how hard it would be,” said Oteibi, one of at least 14 women elected in Saturday’s historic ballot for local councillors.

They will join 2,092 men who also won seats.

Oteibi said her charity work and help for the less fortunate helped secure her victory, and reflects the perseverance she has shown despite the odds since she was a child.

She attended primary school in Mecca, many kilometres (miles) away from her home, and continued studying even after she got married and had her first child while still in high school.

“Despite that, I excelled until I graduated with a bachelor’s degree with honours in the Arabic language,” she said.

One-third of the seats in municipal councils in the country will be appointed.

Council powers are limited to streets, public gardens, garbage collection and other local issues.

But the councils have also been given new financial and administrative freedom, power which Oteibi hopes to take advantage of to raise issues of concern to her constituents.

She wants to improve the roads leading to Mecca, create jobs for both men and women, and develop tourism.

“I will work hard to develop Mudrika,” Oteibi told AFP.

RELATED Saudi female voter turnout nearly 80 percent in some districts