Saudi Women Vote for the First Time. What Did That Look Like?

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By royal decree, Saudi Arabia granted women the right to participate in a local election (by both voting and running for office). It is the first time ever.

How did Saudi women experience their new right? Were they open to talking about it? Could a Times video journalist film in Saudi Arabia? And what broader questions might the election raise?

“Ladies First,” a 40-minute documentary using the local election as the occasion to focus on social and political reform in Saudi Arabia, resulted from my attempts to find out.

From the outset, I was prepared to work around various Saudi restrictions, including rules that strictly segregate the population along gender lines. I knew, for example, that I would have to work with a female cinematographer if I intended to film women and a male shooter if I wasn’t allowed to access certain spaces because I am a woman.

I landed in Riyadh and spent days just talking to people. I took my camera everywhere, but I didn’t used it at that time. I wanted to figure out exactly who to follow and to get a clearer sense of the broader story.

It was easy to find candidates in the more affluent neighborhoods of Riyadh. These women were generally more accessible, some spoke English and many had already been approached by Western reporters.

Wanting to see what I might find in less commonly traveled parts of the city, I took a ride out to areas that felt more insular. I walked into random convenience stores, real estate businesses (there were many of those), wedding halls (used for campaign events by some male candidates) and neighborhood parks on weekend nights. I wanted to feature the women whose names were on the ballots in these regions.

Eventually I found Reem. She impressed me with her sincerity. She was, however, extremely cautious because she did not want to stand out or challenge cultural norms. She thought freely but spoke carefully. When I left her house after conducting a long, off-camera conversation, I had a more complete sense of the story I would set out to do.

This is when I was joined by my colleague Yousur al-Hlou. It was time to turn the camera on; we started rolling the day after she arrived.

“Ladies First” screened to what I was told was a full house at the Margaret Mead Film Festival on Friday in New York. I summarized my reflections on the event in a Facebook post that I shared publicly with my online friends and followers. I’ll share it here (with a few edits for length.) And we can keep the conversation going.

It’s a mixed bag. “Ladies First” is available online now. I invite you to click.