17 women win seats in landmark Saudi elections

Saudi women voting in municipal council polls, the kingdom's first election open to female voters and candidates, at a polling station in Riyadh on Saturday.
Saudi women voting in municipal council polls, the kingdom's first election open to female voters and candidates, at a polling station in Riyadh on Saturday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

RIYADH • At least 17 women won municipal council seats in Saudi Arabia's first elections open to female voters and candidates, a state-aligned news site reported, in a milestone for the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom.

Sabq.org, a news website affiliated with the Interior Ministry, reported that a total of 17 women had been elected in various parts of the country. The official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) also announced that four women had been elected.

One of them was Ms Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi, who was elected to a council in the holy city of Mecca, SPA reported, citing election commission president Osama al-Bar. Another woman, Ms Hanouf bint Mufrih bin Ayid al-Hazmi, was elected in the north-western region of Jawf.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with some of the world's tightest restrictions on women, including a ban on driving.

It was the last country to allow only men to vote, and polling stations were segregated during the ballot.

Among the 6,440 candidates running for seats on 284 councils were more than 900 women, who had to overcome a number of obstacles to participate in the landmark polls.

Female candidates could not meet face to face with male voters during campaigning, while neither men nor women could publish their pictures. Women voters said registration was hindered by various factors, including bureaucratic obstacles and a lack of transportation.

As a result, women accounted for fewer than 10 per cent of registered voters and few female candidates were expected to be elected.

According to election commission data, nearly 1.5 million people aged 18 and over were registered for the polls. This included about 119,000 women, out of a total native Saudi population of almost 21 million. At least one part of the country reported a female turnout exceeding 80 per cent, according to official data.

In the Baha region, 946 women voted, according to the local election commission cited by SPA. With 1,146 women registered, that translated into an 82.5 per cent turnout.

Baha's turnout for men and women was 51.5 per cent, SPA said.

Female candidates expressed pride in running, even if they did not think they would win, while women voters, some of them tearful, said they were happy at finally being able to do something they had only seen on television or in movies.

Activist Nassima al-Sadah said it did not matter whether women voted for their own sex. "The important thing is that you need to support a good person," she said.

Ruled by the Al-Saud family, Saudi Arabia has no elected legislature. Men have voted since 2005 in elections for municipal councils.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2015, with the headline '17 women win seats in landmark Saudi elections'. Print Edition | Subscribe