For the first time in Saudi Arabia’s history females have been allowed to vote and contest elections. Today’s municipal poll was a landmark in which about 980 women took part as candidates for the council seats and more than 130,000 women were registered to vote.
However, the women participation was very low compared to 5,000 men candidates and 1.35 million male voters.
Experts believe though the municipal council election is a modest one but it is a big step taken in opening space for a greater public voice for the women in the country despite several limitations such as ban of women driving.
A professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh, Khalid al-Dakhil, said the new step could open up doors of more reforms in Saudi Arabia even though there’s indifference between the two sexes.
The Saturday’s change is part of the late King Abdullah’s legacy that issued a decree four years ago in 2011 and authorized women to vote.
Abdullah died earlier this year in January. His decree mentioned, “Starting with the next election, women have the right to nominate themselves for the membership of the municipal councils.”
However, the campaigning was not easy for candidates. The country has strict rules for them and one such is a female cannot address male voters and so the other way to the issue was to delegate a male relative to lure potential voters.
A female local municipal council election candidate, Fawzeya al-Harbi, said women in the country have been waiting for the opportunity for past ten years.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said it was hard for the women to get themselves registered to vote. Many voting registration centers were set up far away from the places where female resides and moreover it was hard to locate the offices. Also, women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive vehicles.
Apart from all these, the advocacy organization further added the women faced problems in proving their identities as many still don’t have ID cards. Providing proof of residence was also tough as usually women don’t own property in the country.
Human Rights Watch Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said, “The government should fix the problems that are making it hard for women to participate and build on this progress to create momentum for further women’s rights reforms.”
Meanwhile, the change has been widely accepted by people and there was little public criticism against women participation in the polls. The younger generations highly supported it.
A young Saudi citizen Yazid al-Ajlan said the decree of late king for the right of woman to run municipal elections has now been implemented and the younger generation is fully supporting the change, and also they are with the elections.
In Saudi Arabia there are 284 councils which are elected by the citizens. Only 2/3rd of the 3,159 seats are elected. Minister of municipal and rural affairs appoint the rest.
The councils have limited responsibilities such as looking after the budgets for public facilities like parks and roads.