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Haifa al-Hababi Is Saudi Arabia’s 1st Female Political Candidate

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Sitting in a modern living room surrounded by family photographs and knickknacks, Haifa al-Hababi does not look or act like a trailblazer.

As the first female to register as a candidate in the history of Saudi Arabian elections, the 37-year-old architect, professor and newspaper columnist is breaking the rules. She campaigned with her face uncovered and regularly dons bright colors — rare in a country where most women favor black, neck-to-feet abayas in public.

"Things are changing here," al-Hababi said when asked if she has faced any criticism for campaigning unveiled. "Women's roles have changed whereby they don't just necessarily sit at home but work and are much more involved in public life."

Image: Haifa Al Hababi
Haifa Al Hababi after she registered as a candidate in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Lubna Hussein / NBC News

She added: "I'm not looking at it as a woman or a man — I'm looking at it as an equal. For me, it's an opportunity for the whole country to participate."

It may not sound a big deal to many in the West, but simply appearing in public unveiled is a big step in deeply conservative Saudi Arabia. Not only that, women are also dependent on a male guardian who are allowed to make some of the most basic life decisions for them, can't drive themselves and have a very limited role in shaping the destiny of their country.

So the 2011 royal decree by former King Abdullah to allow women to vote in municipal elections was a major move that ruffled feathers among the country's extremely conservative clerical ranks.

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Official information on the number of voters and candidates for the December 12 vote is very hard to come by but Arabic daily al-Hayat reported that more 1,000 women are standing for office. They are spread across around 75 percent of the country's districts.

Still, al-Hababi and others like her face an uphill battle.

"We do have to take note of the fact that this is a positive step, but we just have a such a long way to go for women," according to Rothna Begum, woman's rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch.

Begum points to longstanding issues like women being barred from driving and being subject to the mercy of male guardians. But even after women were allowed to vote, some of the basic requirements made it hard for them to participate.

Among other things, rules prohibit male-female mixed campaign offices, and stop women candidates from communicating directly with men, although they are allowed to use Twitter and YouTube to spread their campaign messages.

"It's not simply a case of women putting their thumb prints in — it is not a fair campaigning field for men and women," Begum added.

Nearly 130,000 women registered to vote for the first time, according to the pro-women's rights Baladi campaign — a tiny proportion of the 10 million who live in Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy and so unused to democracy — a mere 500,000 men are registered, and they have been allowed to vote in municipal elections for a decade already.

Still, change is coming. Women make up a quarter of the country's Shura Council, an unelected body appointed by the king that can propose laws but cannot pass them. And now they can vote, legally at least.

Image: A Saudi businesswoman
A Saudi businesswoman speaks on her cellphone during the Private Sector Middle East Conference in Riyadh on Dec. 3, 2013. FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP/Getty Images, File

Al-Hababi first decided to run when she saw a tweet from Hatoon al-Fassi, a prominent women's rights activist who is part of Baladi, which means "my country" in Arabic.

"We are empowering and championing women across the country in a systematic organized fashion to guarantee the participation of women in a professional way and to make sure that this historic moment is successful," al-Fassi told NBC News.

The campaign's slogan, "Your voice counts," is printed on pamphlets, posters, bracelets, badges and even chocolates at Al Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women in Riyadh, the country's capital.

"This is recognition that a woman is a citizen," said Sheikha al-Sudairy, the group's chief projects officer at the center speaking of the elections.

Al-Nahda trained 125 volunteers who then went out and trained over 5,000 women as to how to have their voices heard through voting.

Not everyone has gotten the message.

"I didn't vote because I didn't know what it is about," said Walaa al-Majarishi, a 20-year-old supermarket employee. "I think that women are really very important in this society, in any society, but even so men are always the ones with the power."

Al-Majarishi says her father is sick and unemployed so she has to help support the family.

"Now my mother and I have to work because we have to pay the bills," she said. "But even so, we still have to follow the rules of my father."

Many professional women were also undecided about participating.

Hiba Dialdin, a petroleum engineering consultant at oil giant ARAMCO based in Dahran, said she was on the fence for a long time.

"We had a debate among my friends about whether this was really important for us and why we should go out when it wasn't such a big deal," the 46-year-old admitted.

Dialdin said the turning point came when she read a headline saying that women weren't interested in voting.

"I thought: 'We have to go out in force saying, yes, we are engaged wherever we can make a change, and we are going to be involved in decision making,'" she said.

So a handful of women like al-Hababi are trailblazers, but what will she do if they don't get win?

"I won't be surprised if I'm not elected," al-Hababi admitted. "But I will definitely use all this experience to campaign harder and try again in the next election in four years. I believe that everything can change through education. The look on a girl's face when you give her any information is priceless. I would like to be minister of education one day."