Saudi women register to vote for the first time ever

Saudi politics is set to shift as women are allowed to vote and run for office in the conservative Muslim kingdom.

Hassan Ammar/AP
Women are registering to vote in national elections for the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia.

Women in Saudi Arabia are registering to vote in nationwide local elections for the first time in the history of the country.  

Women will also be able to run for office in December's election.

The first two women to receive their voter cards were Jamal Al-Saadi and Safinaz Abu Al-Shamat, the Saudi Gazzette reported.

“The participation of the Saudi women in the municipal elections as voters and candidates was a dream for us,” Saadi said. “The move will enable Saudi women to have a say in the process of the decision-making.”

A third of the 1,263 voting centers are being set aside for use by female voters, according to the paper.

About 70 women intend to run for office, and 80 plan to work as campaign managers, according to Arab News. The paper reports that, activist Naila Attar is organizing workshops ahead of the elections to urge Saudi women to "participate and exercise their right as citizens."

In September 2011, against the backdrop of protests on the lack of women's rights in Saudi Arabia, then-King Abdullah announced that women would be allowed to vote in local elections in 2015.

"We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society and in every aspect, within the rules of Sharia," Abdullah said at the time referring to the Islamic law that governs many aspects of life in the kingdom, the Associated Press reported.

"Muslim women in our Islamic history have demonstrated positions that expressed correct opinions and advice," he said, citing examples from the era of Islam's Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.

The decision came at a time when many Arab countries were reevaluating their societies following the Arab Spring protests that swept the region earlier the same year.

“In the backdrop of the past seven months of the Arab Spring, I think they may have felt that it’s important to make some gradual steps for women’s rights inside Saudi Arabia,” Qamar-ul Huda, a specialist on Saudi Arabia at the US Institute of Peace, told PBS Newshour.

The change is considered by many to be a major advancement for the rights of women in a strict Islamic society that doesn't allow women many options they can exercise without first gaining approval from their male guardians.

The Independent notes that, “activists have hailed the move as progress – but say there is still a long way to go before women have equal rights to men in the kingdom.”

“This long overdue move is welcome but it’s only a tiny fraction of what needs to be addressed over gender inequality in Saudi Arabia," Amnesty International UK's Karen Middleton told the paper.

“Let’s not forget that Saudi Arabian women won’t actually be able to drive themselves to the voting booths as they’re still completely banned from driving.

“They are still unable to travel, engage in paid work or higher education, or marry without the permission of a male guardian.”

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