Saudi Arabian women voted for the first time on Saturday in local council elections and also stood as candidates, a step hailed by some activists in the Islamic patriarchy as a historic change, but by others as merely symbolic.
“As a first step, it is a great achievement. Now we feel we are part of society, that we contribute,” Sara Ahmed, 30, a physiotherapist told Reuters entering a polling station in north Riyadh. “We talk a lot about it, it’s a historic day for us.”
The election, which follows men-only polls in 2005 and 2011, is for two-thirds of seats on councils that previously had only advisory powers, but will now have a limited decision-making role in local government.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in which women cannot drive and a woman’s male “guardian”, usually a father, husband, brother or son, can stop her travelling overseas, marrying, working, studying or having some forms of elective surgery.
Under King Abdullah, who died in January and who announced in 2011 that women would be able to vote in this election, steps were taken for women to have a bigger public role, sending more of them to university and encouraging female employment.
Before Abdullah announced Saudi Arabian women would take part in this year’s elections, the country’s Grand Mufti, its most senior religious figure, described women’s involvement in politics as “opening the door to evil”.
The pace of social reform in Saudi Arabia, while ultimately dictated by the Al Saud, is also strongly influenced by a tussle between conservatives and progressives over how the country should marry its religious tradition with modernity.
According to JAPANTODAY, more than 130,000 women registered to vote, compared to 1.35 million men. The General Election Commission estimated there are at least 5 million eligible voters out of a population of 20 million, but the figure could be much higher.
At a polling center in Riyadh, Shara Al-Qahtani, a 50-year-old mother of eight, wearing a loose black dress known as an abaya that all women must wear in public and a traditional veil covering her face and hair, said women being allowed to vote “is good for people and good for society … Women are partners of men.”
Najla Khaled, a 24-year-old English literature major, described voting “as a huge step for women in Saudi.”
Though women make up just 10 percent of registered voters, the right to simply cast a ballot sends a wider message to society, she said.
“If you look back at the history of women (in Islam), there are so many strong women,” she said. “The Prophet (Muhammad) worked for his wife Khadija. The prophet’s wife was his boss technically.”
The candidates were vying for about 2,100 council seats. An additional 1,050 seats are appointed with approval from King Salman, who could use his powers to appoint female candidates who don’t win outright. The candidates serve four-year terms that begin on Jan. 1.