For the first time, Saudi women were allowed to run for office and vote in the national election that took place over the weekend. Of the 7,000 candidates running across the country for around 2,100 municipal council seats, 979 of them were women, and 20 of them won.
The women who won hail from vastly different parts of the country, ranging from Saudi Arabia's largest city to a small village near Islam's holiest site.One percent is a meager but important start. Especially since the female candidates were hampered by the "strict gender segregation rules that ban men and women from mixing in public. This meant candidates could not directly address voters of the opposite sex." The female candidates mostly "ran their campaigns online, using social media to get the word out."
The 20 female candidates represent just one percent of the roughly 2,100 municipal council seats up for grabs, but even limited gains are seen as a step forward for women who had previously been completely shut out of elections. Women are still not allowed to drive and are governed by guardianship laws that give men final say over aspects of their lives like marriage, travel and higher education.
Though there are no quotas for female council members, an additional 1,050 seats are appointed with approval by the king who could use his powers to ensure more women are represented.
Many women candidates ran on platforms that promised more nurseries to offer longer daycare hours for working mothers, the creation of youth community centers with sports and cultural activities, improved roads, better garbage collection and overall greener cities.Women ran for office, and women voted: "The historic election drew a staggering 106,000 female voters out of some 130,000 who'd registered."
In October, the Saudi Gazette reported that harsh road conditions and long distances to the nearest hospital had forced some women in the village of Madrakah, where one female candidate was elected, to give birth in cars. The local newspaper reported that the closest hospital and the nearest university were in Mecca, prompting some students to forgo attending classes. The article said residents were also frustrated with the lack of parks in the village.
It is precisely these kinds of community issues that female candidates hope to address once elected to the municipal councils. The councils do not have legislative powers, but advise authorities and help oversee local budgets.
In Jiddah, three generations of women from the same family voted for the first time. The oldest woman in the family was 94-year-old Naela Mohammad Nasief. Her daughter, Sahar Hassan Nasief, said the experience marked "the beginning" of greater rights for women in Saudi Arabia.Many Saudi women tweeted pictures of themselves voting for the first time. And I've got something in my eye.
"I walked in and said 'I've have never seen this before. Only in the movies'," the daughter said, referring to the ballot box. "It was a thrilling experience."