In a historic ballot, 20 women were voted into local governments in Saudi Arabia last weekend. Not only did Sunday’s ballot mark the first time women were on the ticket, it was the first time that women were allowed to vote. This is an important step forward for democracy in the Middle East, but it is only a step.
Democracy is new to Saudi Arabia and is limited in its reach. There have been just two previous rounds of voting for local councils (the only democratically elected positions in the country) — in 2005 and 2011 — and in those two ballots only men could vote. Seven thousand candidates contested the 2,100 seats up for grabs in this election; 979 of those candidates were women.
They campaigned largely on household issues: longer hours for day care, creation of youth community centers, better garbage collection and greener cities. Strict gender separation laws encouraged women to use social media to avoid prohibitions against mixed sex audiences. The General Election Commission tried to level the playing field for women who wear traditional veils by banning all candidates from showing their faces in campaign materials or from appearing on television.
Women seized the opportunity to vote. A little less than 10 percent of registered voters in Saudi Arabia are women, and over 80 percent of them cast ballots last weekend. Less than half the registered male voters did the same.
In truth, women have not been excluded from the legislative process. The king can appoint women to the various municipal councils and King Abdullah also named women to the 150-member Consultative Council. The king ordered the extension of the franchise to women before he died earlier this year.
Women have been claiming more space in Saudi politics, economy and social labor. Basic restrictions remain, however: Women cannot drive and guardianship laws give men final say over critical aspects of their lives, such as who they marry and their education. The victories of women across the country — even in conservative strongholds — show that there will be even more pressure for change in the future.