RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—Thousands of Saudi women headed to polling stations across the kingdom on Saturday, both as voters and candidates for the first time in a landmark election.
Nearly 6,000 men and around 980 women are running as candidates for local municipal council seats. More than 130,000 women have registered to vote compared to 1.35 million men. The General Election Commission says there are at least 5 million eligible voters out of a population of 20 million, but the figure could be much higher.
The election, which does not have quotas for females, is widely seen as an incremental but significant opening for women to play a more equal role in Saudi society.
Candidate Latifa Al-Bazei, a 53-year-old public school principal, said her participation in the race felt like a continuation of her service to the community. She wants to see Saudi Arabia’s majority youth population under 25 years old get more involved in their local communities.
“I’ve served 23 years as a teacher and school administrator… My goal is development, change and innovation,” she said at a Riyadh polling station after casting her vote.
At the King Salman Social Center in Riyadh, Shara Al-Qahtani, a 50-year-old mother of eight, cast her vote for a male candidate whose name she says she recognized. Her two daughters said they voted for female candidates.
Al-Qahtani, 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.”
Despite enthusiasm for the race among some, not many women are expected to win seats because of the sheer number of male candidates and because many had no previous experience running campaigns. Many women said they also could not afford the high cost of running a highly visible campaign.
“I don’t consider winning to be the ultimate goal… but it is the right of being a citizen that I concentrate on and I consider this a turning point,” said Hatoon Al-Fassi, general co-ordinator for the grassroots Saudi Baladi Initiative that worked closely with women to raise voter awareness and increase female participation in the election.
“We are looking at it as an opportunity to exercise our right and to push for more,” she added.
Female candidates will also contend with a deep societal belief among many Saudi voters that women do not belong in public life. Abdullah Al-Maiteb made his way into a polling station in the capital Riyadh Saturday morning, expressing 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?”
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not permitted to drive cars, largely due to pressure from religious conservatives in the kingdom. Saudi women are also governed by guardianship laws that require them to have the permission of male relatives, usually the father or husband, in order to marry, obtain a passport, travel abroad or access higher education.
In line with Saudi Arabia’s strict gender segregation rules, men and women are casting ballots at separate polling stations. Female candidates could also not directly address male voters, and had to either present their platforms from behind a partition, relying on projectors and microphones, or through male supporters and relatives presenting for them.
Municipal councils are the only government body in which Saudi citizens can elect their representatives. It’s the third time in recent decades that Saudi men have been allowed to vote. The first local council election since the 1960s was held in 2005 and the second in 2011, with only men taking part.
Both male and female candidates relied heavily on social media this year to reach voters, using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to announce campaign events and explain their platforms, which include ideas such as creating more youth centres, nurseries, parks and improving roads.
The candidates are vying for around 2,100 council seats with an additional 1,050 seats appointed with approval from the king.
While the municipal councils do not have legislative powers, they do oversee a range of community issues, such as budgets for maintaining and improving public facilities. All major decision-making powers rest solely in the hands of King Salman and the all-male Cabinet of ministers.
The candidates will serve four-year terms that begin on Jan. 1.
Karen Young, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington DC, says the success rate of women in the Saudi municipal elections “will be slim to zero.”
“There is not a clear understanding of what the value of representation can be within the current political system, though there are many activists who are committed to continuing this opening and trying to expand it inch by inch,” she said.
Associated Press writer Bassam Hatoum contributed to this report.