In minor election, a major step for Saudi women

Turnout among women was low for the Jeddah vote that ended Tuesday; 17 female candidates participated.

This city's Chamber of Commerce and Industry elections - made historic by the participation of women - ended Tuesday with little expectation that even one of the 17 female candidates would win a seat on the board.

But the elections, the first in which women were allowed to vote and run, were viewed as a breakthrough in this conservative kingdom where women are not allowed to drive and can't work or travel without permission from a male guardian.

"Even if I don't make the board, I feel like I'm a winner, just by the fact that we were able to take part in these elections," says candidate Lama al-Sulaiman.

It was not clear how many women were eligible to vote for the board, limited to members of the business community. But an employee at the chamber estimated that about 250 women voted, which is around 10 percent of the estimated eligible voters.

Men, on the other hand, turned out in the thousands because of high interest this year due to Saudi Arabia's ascension into the World Trade Organization in December. Voters will choose six candidates and six will be appointed by the Ministry of Commerce and Trade.

During the month-long campaign, female candidates concentrated on explaining the concept of elections. Close to 60 women attended a presentation by two female candidates at a local restaurant last week. Nashwa Taher and Ms. Sulaiman explained that women had specific needs not currently addressed by the chamber of commerce.

"As women who deal in business we know exactly the kind of obstacles women face," said Ms. Taher, one of the candidates. The audience was curious about the chamber of commerce and how it could help them. "Do you have jobs for women?" asked a member of the audience.

"For us this is more of an awareness campaign than an election campaign," said Taher. "We want to teach women about elections."

Sulaiman said she had learned much during the campaign. "This is a first in Saudi Arabia and this has been an incredible learning experience for me."

Work opportunities for Saudi women are limited because of conservative traditions that view the mingling between the sexes as un-Islamic. But newly crowned Saudi King Abdullah is known to be a proponent of women's rights.

Taher and Sulaiman urged the women present to vote for them and more importantly, to urge their menfolk to vote for them as well. Some 2,400 women hold commercial licenses in Jeddah, Sulaiman told the crowd, as opposed to more than 20,000 men.

Several conservative imams have come out against women's participation in the vote. According to al-Hayat newspaper, some Islamists said women should not run in the election because being a board member would lead to working with men not closely related to them, which is consider a sin.

Though the candidates were not optimistic about getting a seat this time, some activists hoped the ministry would appoint a woman. Many women's rights advocates hope that even though the Jeddah vote was limited to businesswomen, what they learn here will be helpful when and if they participate in political elections.

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