Women elected to power in Saudi Arabia. What now?

After 17 women were elected to municipal council positions in Saudi Arabia Saturday, women in the Islamic kingdom are cautiously optimistic about their future rights. 

Aya Batrawy/AP
Saudi women vote at a polling center during the country's municipal elections in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015.

For the first time ever in the conservative Islamic kingdom, Saudi Arabians elected women into public office, as 17 women won Saturday’s municipal council elections. 

The voting experience was emotionally moving for many Saudi women. “I’m about to do it,” Jawaher al-Rawili, 30-year-old government worker told her friend over the phone before entering a women-only polling station in Riyadh. “It’s so exciting!

“This is a day for all Saudi women if they voted or not,” Latifa al-Bazei, 53, told The Washington Post’s Brian Murphy. “We are gaining a right that was kept from half the country for too long.”

And while the election results are a victory for all Saudi women, their win is still be subject to considerable restrictions.

Saturday’s election only fills two-thirds of seats in the municipal councils. The rest of the positions are appointed by approval of King Salman. Regardless of who holds seats in the municipal councils, the positions hold no lawmaking powers. Some responsibilities for the elected men and women include trash collection and street maintenance.  

And within Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, the election of public officials is mostly symbolic, if not an outright oxymoron. King Salman holds all legitimate power, leaving some voters – both male and female – apathetic about enfranchisement. Only 1.5 million Saudis, out of a population of approximately 27 million people, are registered to vote.

“Critics argue that while it’s important women have now been given the right to vote, the gesture is merely symbolic and ignores the deeper political problems that persist in the country,” The Christian Science Monitor’s Olivia Lowenberg explained Saturday.

Officials said about 130,000 women had registered to vote in Saturday’s election, far less than the 1.35 million registered men. And of the 2,100 council seats availble in this vote, female candidates won less than 20.

And outside of voting, Saudi women still face daily obstacles because of their gender. In the Saudi kingdom, women can’t drive cars, don’t have the right to seek a divorce, and need the permission of a male guardian to work or get a passport. Also, there is no minimum age of marriage for Saudi girls.   

Saudi Arabia was the last country in the world to grant women the right to vote. 

But Saudi women say the magnitude of their victory should not be underestimated. “Change is a big word,” Salma Al Rashed, the first woman to register to vote in her district tells the BBC. “But the election is the way to make sure we are represented. Our role is to vote for people who know our needs.” 

Some Saudi women say the Western media skews their priorities. Whereas Saudi Arabia’s ban on female drivers is often the focus of international activists, Saudi women say driving really isn’t at the top of their list.

“Let’s worry about the big things first before we get bogged down in disputes over driving,” Najd al-Hababi, whose sister Haifa ran for a council seat, told The Washington Post. “I know this is a huge thing in the West, but we have other things, bigger things, on our agenda.”

And in the meantime, they want to enjoy their victory.

“This isn’t just a step for Saudi women,” voter Fatima al-Juraysi told The Washington Post. “It’s a giant step. Let’s now hope it isn’t the last.”

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