‘Proud’ women win seats in historic Saudi vote

Saudi women cast their votes at a polling station in the Kingdom's municipal elections, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Saudi women cast their votes at a polling station in the Kingdom's municipal elections, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.PHOTO: EPA

RIYADH (AFP) – At least 13 women won municipal council seats in Saudi Arabia’s first ever election open to female voters and candidates, officials said on Sunday (Dec 13), far exceeding expectations in the ultra-conservative kingdom. 

“Even if it was only one woman, we’re really proud of that. Honestly, we weren’t expecting anyone to win,” said Sahar Hassan Nasief, a women’s rights activist in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. 

But with 2,106 seats up for election, the 13 women will comprise less than one per cent of Saudi Arabia’s elected council membership. 

“We need more than nine,” said Aljazi al-Hossaini, who was defeated in Diriyah on the edge of Riyadh, where three women won seats, according to Saudi news channel Al-Ekhbaria. 

She hoped women would be also included among the one third of council seats which are appointed by the municipal affairs ministry. 

Khadra al-Mubarak in the Gulf coast city of Qatif confirmed to AFP that she was among the victors. 

“I will be in contact with society, especially women, to deliver their voices and demands to the council. I promise I will represent her by all means,” she said. 

In the first announcement of a female winner, Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi was elected in the holy city of Mecca, the official SPA news agency reported. 

Another woman, Hanouf bint Mufrih bin Ayid al-Hazmi, won in the northwestern region of Jawf, SPA said, adding that neighbouring Tabuk elected two women. 

In the east, Sanna Abdel Latif Hamam and Maasooma Abdel Mohsen al-Rida were elected in Ihsa province, SPA said. 

Winners came from the south as well, with one woman elected in Jazan region, while two others including Lama al-Suleiman will join councils in Jeddah, the kingdom’s second city, local election officials cited by SPA said. 

The duties of municipal councils are limited to local affairs including streets, public gardens and garbage collection. 

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. 

More than 900 women were among the 6,440 candidates standing for seats on 284 councils.  They had to overcome a number of obstacles to participate in the landmark poll.  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 factors including bureaucratic obstacles and a lack of transportation.  As a result, women accounted for less than 10 per cent of registered voters. 

According to election commission data, nearly 1.5 million people aged 18 and above signed up for the polls.  This included about 119,000 women, out of a total native Saudi population of almost 21 million. 

Turnout for women was around 80 per cent in parts of the country, well in excess of the figure for men, according to official data analysed by AFP. 

Female candidates expressed pride in standing, even if they didn’t think they would win, while women voters said they were happy at finally being able to do something they had only seen on television or in movies. 

Nassima al-Sadah, an activist in Qatif, said the voting process was relatively smooth, unlike the registration.  Many female candidates used social media to campaign, but a handful of others, including women’s rights activists, were disqualified from the process. 

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia boasts modern infrastructure of highways, skyscrapers and ever-more shopping malls.  But women still require permission from male family members to travel, work or marry. 

Ruled by the Al-Saud family of King Salman, Saudi Arabia has no elected legislature and faces intense Western scrutiny of its rights record.  A slow expansion of women’s rights began under Salman’s predecessor Abdullah, who announced four years ago that women would take part in the 2015 municipal elections. 

Men have voted since 2005 in the local polls.