Despite still being barred from driving themselves to the polls, Saudi Arabian women voted for the first time on Saturday. Twenty of them have been elected to serve as municipal councilors, a largely ceremonial position in a government that remains an autocratic monarchy.
“I have goosebumps,” said Ghada Ghazzawi, a businesswoman, as at a polling station in an upscale neighborhood in Jeddah. “We have been waiting for this day for a long time.”
Although only one percent of those elected to municipal council seats were women, the election is seen as a milestone in a country where women must obtain permission from their fathers, brothers, or husbands in order to travel, accept jobs, or pursue higher education.
“It’s very difficult because it’s the first time — and we are competing against men,” Rasha Hefzi, a social worker who won a seat representing Jeddah, said before election results were announced. “But people are thirsty for change.”
Women candidates did much of their campaigning online since strict gender segregation in the Kingdom prevented them from interacting in public. The General Election Committee barred all candidates from showing their faces in campaign material or on television, in order to “level the playing field” for women who wear a full-face veil.
Many women promised more childcare facilities, community centers, better garbage collection, and greener cities as part of their campaigns.
Women first served as municipal councilors through appointments from the King. More than 1,000 additional municipal seats will be decided with approval from the King Salman, who could use his power to ensure that more women are represented in making decisions about urban planning and development projects.
Municipal elections were first introduced to the monarchy in 2005. Those elected to the local seats have no sway over national policies and cannot pass legislation. Such democratic overtures have received only cautious praise from rights’ groups, due to the country’s abysmal civil liberties record. It is still illegal for women to drive in the Kingdom, and more than 150 people were executed there this year.
Before the late King Abdullah announced his plan for voting reform in 2011, the top religious figure in Saudi Arabia, its Grand Mufti said that allowing women to participate in politics would be “opening the door to evil.”
For some women in Saudi Arabia, that door opens to their liberation.
“It is the first time they let us do something [like this] and we are not letting go,” one Saudi woman said. “It is a door open, ajar, and we just have to push it wide open.”