“This is a new day. The day of the Saudi woman.”
In an historic step towards equality, women in Saudi Arabia have for the first time been allowed to vote in local elections, and run for seats. About 900 women and 6000 men ran for council, with at least 18 women elected to office in polls taken this Saturday.
The victorious women are from all over the country, with new councillors elected from Mecca, Jawf, and Tabuk.
Elections in Saudi Arabia are rare in general. This is only the third time in history Saudis have gone to the polls, and there were no elections at all between 1965 and 2005. To allow an election with female voters and candidates is momentous in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
“As a first step it is a great achievement. Now we feel we are part of society, that we contribute,” said physiotherapist Sara Ahmed, who entered a polling station in north Riyadh.
Aside from the obvious social ramifications, the election is important to women on a practical level. Fahda al-Rwali, a female voter, explained the significance of the election to her personal situation.
“As a woman, I need some services…like nurseries. I need social centres for youth and retirement… So maybe the woman can concentrate more than the man on those needs.”
The process of voting for women was not an easy one. Many conservatives showed strong opposition to the change. Saudi Arabia’s highest religious figure, the Grand Mufti, stated the shift was another step towards Westernisation and; “opening the door to evil”.
Female candidates were not allowed to address male voters while campaigning, and female voters faced a number of challenges. Of the 1.4 million people who registered to vote, only 130,000 were women. This disparity in numbers is due to beurocratic obstacles and logistical reasons such as lack of transport. But this did not dampen the spirits of women voting for the first time.
“We are optimistic about a bright future for women in our homeland,” said female voter Najla Harir.
The reign of King Abdullah, who died in January, was beneficial for women, as he announced in 2011 women would be able to vote in this particular election. He also took steps for women to have a bigger public role, encouraging women to go to university, and advocating for more prolific female employment.
Saudi women’s rights activist and writer, Hatoon al-Fassi, tweeted, “This is a new day. The day of the Saudi woman.”
However, although this election is undoubtedly an important step, it was only for two thirds of seats in municipal councils, which have no lawmaking or national powers. This kind of women’s suffrage has transformed many other countries in the fight for gender equality, but the impact it has in Saudi Arabia will be limited. This is owing to a wider lack of democracy and continued social conservatism.
Saudi Arabia boasts one of the strictest regimes for women in the world. It is the only country in which women cannot drive. A woman’s male ‘guardian’ (a father, brother, husband, or son) can prevent her from travelling overseas, marrying, working, studying, and even having some forms of elective surgery.
In addition, women also can’t open bank accounts, go anywhere without a male chaperone, interact with men, go for a swim, or compete in sports (earlier this year, Saudi Arabia proposed hosting an Olympic Games without female athletes). They also cannot try on clothes while shopping (even in a change room), enter a cemetery, read an uncensored fashion magazine, buy a Barbie doll, or wear makeup or clothes showing off their looks.
However, things are slowly beginning to change, and the recent relinquishing of the reins in terms of female voters is a definite step in the right direction. Women in Saudi Arabia are intelligent and qualified, and do not want to be left by the wayside. It may take a long time yet, but with the right action and attitude, the country is headed towards a more egalitarian future.
Image via youtube.com.