In a step forward for women’s rights in the conservative kingdom’s slow reform process, the Saudi women began their first-ever campaigns for public office on Sunday.
More than 900 women are standing in the December 12 municipal elections, which will also mark the first time women are allowed to vote.
Ruled by King Salman, oil-rich Saudi Arabia has no elected legislature but has faced intense Western scrutiny over its rights record. The country’s first municipal elections were held in 2005, followed by another vote in 2011, but in both cases only men were allowed to participate.
“We will vote for the women even though we don’t know anything about them,” Um Fawaz, a teacher in her 20s, said in Hafr al-Batin city. “It’s enough that they are women,” she said.
The absolute monarchy, which applies its strict interpretation of Islam, has faced widespread criticism for its lack of equal rights.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. Women must also cover themselves in black from head-to-toe in public and require permission from male family members to travel, work or marry.
The late king Abdullah introduced the elections in 2005 and said women would participate in this year’s vote. In 2013, he also named women to the appointed Shura Council, which advises the cabinet.
Abdullah died in January and was succeeded by Salman, who stuck to the election timetable.
In other Gulf states, women have had some voting rights for several years.
About 7,000 people are vying for seats on 284 municipal councils in the vote, the Saudi electoral commission says. Only around 131,000 women have signed up to vote, compared with more than 1.35 million men, out of a native Saudi population of almost 21 million.
Aside from transport problems, women say their voter registration was hindered by bureaucratic obstacles and a lack of awareness of the process and its significance. There is also disappointment at the performance of the local councils and their limited powers -- restricted to streets, public gardens and rubbish disposal.
Although the voting age has been lowered to 18 from 21 and the proportion of elected council members has increased to two-thirds, winning a seat remains a challenge for women in an electorate where male voters vastly outnumber them.
Nassima al-Sadah, a candidate in the Gulf coast city of Qatif, said officials informed her late on Saturday that her name had been removed from the list.
“I don’t know why,” she told AFP. Her campaign was on hold as she tried to obtain clarification.
Al-Sadah was planning to be a particularly active candidate, with a social media onslaught supported by traditional banners and brochures, none of which would be allowed to carry her picture -- a restriction that also applies to male candidates.
In Hafr al-Batin, an official poster promoting the elections and containing a drawing of a man and a woman had been defaced, with the woman’s face slashed out.
Because of the kingdom’s strict separation of sexes -- which applies to election facilities as elsewhere like restaurants -- candidates wishing to meet directly with voters town hall-style will have to meet women one day and men the next, with a male spokesperson addressing the men.
Electoral democracy is still a novel concept in a country where tribal loyalties remain strong and the influence of “wasta” -- knowing the right people -- is overwhelming.
Saud al-Shammry, a 43-year-old Riyadh resident, said it was time a new approach.
“We strive for development and real change, free from tribal or family biases,” he said.
He says “there’s a big possibility” he could vote for a woman, if her platform was convincing.
Ahmed, a government worker in Hafr al-Batin, saw no problem with having women candidates but suggested their participation in the vote was little more than window-dressing.
“Why not? They are just there to decorate the government anyway,” he said.