x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Women go from back row to a front seat

'It is an honour to be part of this, regardless if I win or lose, when you participate in this big day you really feel that it is the day of the nation,' said Shamsa Bin Hamad.

A woman casts her vote at the Fujairah Exhibition Centre.
A woman casts her vote at the Fujairah Exhibition Centre.

The three women from Fujairah sat in the back row of chairs reserved for candidates, behind their male counterparts.

Mouza Saeed Nowaylah saw one of the other female candidates glance her way. "What does that look mean?" she wondered.

"I haven't slept. I haven't eaten. I keep catching myself crying, not sure if they are tears of joy or sadness."

Ms Nowaylah celebrated her 25th birthday during the campaign, on September 5, and was the youngest candidate in the country, but youth was not her only challenge. Like the other 84 women standing, she has tested some long-standing boundaries.

Women who included Fatema Aleghfeli, 37, from Ras Al Khaimah. "I was expected not even to finish high school, everybody expected me to marry at 16," she says. "These were the norms. It was the same when I worked. It's a different story now."

It is indeed. Ms Aleghfeli was the first of her friends to own a mobile phone, the first to drive, the first to work beside men. She was the first female candidate from RAK to campaign in men's majlises, and one of the first in RAK to use posters. "Once you've broken a rule or take a new step, people follow," she says.

"When it's new, people resist, but when you've done it a few times it becomes an old story."

Ms Aleghfeli took two months off work to prepare. She campaigned in remote areas and obtained permission from tribal leaders to attend the men's majlises. Most welcomed her but a few sat in the corner and "watched from a distance".

"It's been stressful. I've had moments when meeting people makes you very excited, when you meet people who know what they're saying, it makes me proud of RAK."

While tensions ran high in the northern and eastern emirates, partly because of the closeness of the candidates to the pool of voters, in Abu Dhabi the overall mood of the candidates remained relaxed.

Mohamed Al Qubaisi was all smiles even as the day dragged on, but admitted feeling a bit nervous. "But I am very happy today," he said. "I am calling today the election celebration."

Regardless of appearances, the nervous candidates in Abu Dhabi were telling their representatives to ask reporters if they had any sense of whom the voters were backing. Most voters, though, kept their counsel.

Shamsa Salem Al Balooshi, 45, a candidate in Al Ain, said: "I am stressing about the results but I am happy that I have at least tried.

"It was a great experience. I got to know lots of people and go to know people's mentalities."

In Dubai, many candidates sat proudly outside the polling stations, expressing to anyone who asked their pride at being part of history.

"It is an honour to be part of this, regardless if I win or lose, when you participate in this big day you really feel that it is the day of the nation," said Shamsa Bin Hamad, a 31-year-old candidate who had brought her three-year-old daughter to the polling station.

The highlight of her day had been talking to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, as he visited the polling station.

"When His Highness said that the woman was the soul of the country, that is when I realised just how important my candidacy was," she said.

Male candidates were by and large not so open about their feelings, opting to repeat the oft-spoken sentiment: "We are all one big family, whoever wins we will be happy for them and congratulate them. In the end, everyone knows everyone here."

newsdesk@thenational.ae