There are two types of death- A natural death where God seizes the soul and then there is a more severe death- where a person’s life leaves behind no traces, said Fadia, voicing the fear of Saudi women across the country – the fear of dying without a mark. Fadia is one of the three women, Mona El Naggar, journalist films in her documentary ‘Ladies First’, a documentary which was recently made public.The Saudi government in 2011 allowed women to participate in politics following which 2015 local elections saw registrations of 900 women across the country standing up for a post which would give them decision making authority limited to street maintenance. However, as the documentary records, in a country where women are not allowed to stand alone in a public space in broad day light – standing for elections was a huge step towards the progress of women and gave enough reasons to women candidates to fight head over heels to win the elections. The documentary unearths a competitive side of women, working against the odds to win the elections.
The name of the documentary, ‘Ladies First’ derives from an incident where a woman journalist poses a question to an all male panel and is mocked by ‘ladies first’- an expression which feminists slam as sexist.
The documentary starts with Fadia, woman in her late 40s making a Snapchat video while her son drives her to the government office to collect her election ID signifying how a woman’s journey to self dependence and freedom in the country, required a male figure.
The journalist interestingly notes how the idea of election among women was so new that the opponents shared advices in a meeting held for women standing in the local elections. However, Fadia was different – She condemned the women who were celebrating the newly ‘given’ right and asserted the fact that she was electing to win.
The never ending list of what Saudi women in public cannot do includes- driving, gathering in public, venturing out of the house without a veil and even facing the camera but some women are purposely defying the discriminatory laws and are increasingly making their presence felt through the internet. Loujain Al Hathlove is one such woman who was sent to jail for driving on the streets of Saudi and trying to cross the border and the first thing Loujain did was to register for elections – elections from which she was eventually evicted from, because of unknown reasons. Although the news was shattering for Loujain, Fadia rejoiced at the ruling. Such a competitive behaviour among Saudi woman showed the level of seriousness and maturity 2015 Saudi elections witnessed.
The documentary unveils how the first revolutionary steps of Loujain’s father included making his daughter swim in the swimming pool meant for men and how that attitude instilled in Loujain the nerves to openly defy government’s ‘unwritten’ laws which is another problematic issue, Naggar documents.
However, it’s the story of Reem that the journalist finds most intriguing. On the outside, Reem is a housewife but a closer view of this Saudi housewife reveals the rage of activism in her. The documentary shows how women like Reem who does not belong to the elite and who do not have support from the male members in her family hide behind another veil to reach out to people, a veil more empowering – the veil of the internet. The journalist in her course of discovering Reem also finds her articles – criticizing the men of the society.
Although with women winning only 21 seats in the country and constituting only upto 1% of the total seats it seems that the gap will take years and years to fill but the documentary ends on a hopeful note by the three candidates who refuse to die without making a mark in the Saudi history.
Ladies First is an NYT documentary.