Saudi women vote for first time: Credible progress?

Women were able to cast ballots and participate as candidates for the first time in Saudi Arabia's municipal elections on Saturday. But critics say that while this is an important first step, there is a longer road toward deeper reforms ahead.

AP Photo/Aya Batrawy
Saudi women vote at a polling center during the country's municipal elections in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015. Saudi women are heading to polling stations across the kingdom on Saturday, both as voters and candidates for the first time in this landmark election.

For the first time, women are participating in Saudi Arabia’s election on Saturday both as voters and candidates.

"As a first step it is a great achievement. Now we feel we are part of society, that we contribute," Sara Ahmed, a physiotherapist, told Reuters. "It's a historic day for us."

In 2011, the now-deceased King Abdullah announced that women would be allowed to nominate candidates in the next municipal election, an arrangement that under the Saudi voting system also amounted to giving women the ability to vote. Democracy is still relatively new in the country, where men were only allowed to vote for the first time since then 1960s in 2005 and 2011. 

Out of a population of approximately 27 million people, only 1.5 million Saudis are registered to vote, 130,000 of whom are women. 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.

This could definitely open the door for more reforms,” Dr. Khalid al-Dakhil, a professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh, told The Washington Post. “That’s a big thing, an important moment. But there’s also an indifference at the same time.”

Few, if any, women are expected to be elected. There are nearly six times as many men running for office as women, and women candidates faced restrictions in the campaign process that men didn't - including not being able to show their faces in campaign posters and not being able meet with any male voters face to face. There are almost 7,000 candidates for about 2,100 seats. 

Still, some are hopeful that while this election, in which nearly 1,000 women are running for municipal office, is for local-level positions, it may open eventually the door to allow women to vote for and participate in the Shura Council, Saudi Arabia’s legislative assembly.

"There is no reason, if this is applied to municipal councils, that they would not apply it to the Shura," Riyadh Najm, a retired former government official, told Reuters.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prevents women from driving, and women are required to get permission from a “male guardian” before they work, attend a university, marry, or travel.

The elections are taking place against a backdrop in which many Saudi men aren't in favor of women taking an expanded public role. Abdullah Al-Maiteb, on his way into a polling station in the capital Riyadh Saturday morning, expressed to the Associated Press a widely held sentiment about why women shouldn't be on the ballot.

"Her role is not in such places. Her role is at home managing the house and raising a new generation," he said. "If we allow her out of the house to do such business, who is going to take care of my sons?"

In response to such perspectives, Uber, the popular online taxi-hailing service, is offering free rides for women to and from polling stations throughout Saudi Arabia, in an effort to help increase the number of women at the polls throughout the kingdom Saturday.

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