Calif. woman tries to become first Saudi-born officeholder

Ferial al-Masry, a Muslim schoolteacher, is breaking stereotypes in her bid for a seat in California Assembly.

In a backroom cafe of this quiet farming community, a group of Rotary club luncheoneers has just finished its Swedish-meatball buffet, baseball announcements, and post-dessert singalong. Next up, in jarring contrast to the rural, conservative, and mostly male surroundings, a tanned, Muslim woman in white business suit is introduced as the afternoon speaker.

Born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, she tells the group of her exodus at age 10 to find schooling for girls and to flee the "cage" of government-controlled religion there. Decades later, she is a veteran California high school teacher extolling the virtues of the US Constitution, religious freedom, and participatory democracy.

She is also breaking stereotypes of Arab Muslim women as she seeks to become the first Saudi-born American to hold elective office in the United States.

"I feel I can be a bridge between the real America and the real Middle East, which people in both countries don't see," says Ferial al-Masry, who is the Democratic candidate for California's 37th Assembly District after a write-in campaign that drew local, national, and international attention. "Americans watching the Middle East on television just see fundamentalist anger, and Saudi Arabians watching America in TV and movies see violence, drugs, prostitution. Neither sees what is going on day-to-day between normal citizens."

Many Arab-Americans feel Ms. Masry's campaign offers a window on their efforts to assume a higher - and positive - profile in post-Sept. 11 America.

"By any stretch of the imagination, this is a fascinating contest ... a Saudi American woman running as a Democrat, and one that is as dynamic, interesting, credible, and creative as anyone's going to get," says Dr. James Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C. "After they see her, audiences go away thinking, 'I might have been wrong about those people [Saudis, Arabs, Muslims].' "

That was the case for Ernie Carlson, a retired physician at the Rotary luncheon. "I thought it was absolutely fascinating that an immigrant from Saudi Arabia is running for elective office from here," he says. "I found her convictions about democracy and what she is trying to do very exciting."

Such comments are music to the ears of Democratic Party organizers. Because of her diverse background, they felt Masry could also be the bridge between Democrats and Republicans in a district polarized in recent years by candidates who they feel do not adequately represent the middle ground of voters there.

"People in this district are tired of feeling left out, being represented by a small group of extreme right-wing activists," says Masry, who now teaches at Cleveland High School in Los Angeles.

Running in a district that voted 46 percent Republican and 34 percent Democrat last election Masry may have an uphill battle, some analysts say. But she and others think that by November, she'll have a real chance against Audra Strickland, the wife of a termed-out Republican assemblyman.

Though some feel that the post-Sept. 11 era has brought advances in some Arab and Muslim quarters, many in the Arab community feel that the image has backslid in recent years and that the Masry candidacy can help reverse the slide.

"We have spent the past several years combating the polarization and stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims," says Omar Zaki of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Masry is highlighting a trend of more Arabs in politics, running for office in such a way that Americans can begin to look past skin color and religion to the core of an individual with core values and abilities."

Her résumé and biography have evidence of such values and abilities. She was educated in Egypt, France, and England before coming to the US with her husband (Waleed al-Masry, a civilian electrical engineer). Starting in 1983, she ran an Islamic school in Ventura County that taught culture and the Arab language. She earned a master's degree in school administration from California Lutheran University.

"I was most impressed by what she said about how California education has slid from top in the US to near the bottom," says Barbara Beach, a former teacher who listened to Masry's Rotary talk.

And Masry has raised three kids. Her oldest child, now 24, traveled to Iraq as a civil-affairs reserve officer to help build schools and hospitals. Masry believes the Iraq war was a mistake but supports her son and the US military.

Though she seemed to have wowed the Rotary crowd, Masry is by no means a shoo-in, voters say.

"It's going to be tough, I'll have to be honest with you .... Ventura is pretty Republican," says Elias Valdez, a lifetime Santa Paulan, who says Masry's observations about a disconnect between Arab and American cultural perceptions mirror his own observations about a Mexican-US divide. "I got excited hearing from someone who sees that same problem and is putting herself on the line to correct it."

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