JEDDAH • Saudi Arabia has let women register to stand in local elections, in a historic first for the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom.
In a country where women face a host of restrictions including a driving ban, the move announced on Sunday was welcomed as an important step forward.
But it faced criticism from hardline conservatives while rights groups say it is not enough.
It came after another first earlier last month, when women started to register to vote in the December local elections at centres run by all-female staff, separate from registration facilities for men.
Saudi blogger Eman al-Nafjan, who has registered as a voter in Riyadh, said taking part in the elections is "a positive step" but warned that "there are major obstacles that prevent women from participating, such as transportation".
"A woman's vote is essential and her role must not be marginalised."
MR FAWAZ ABDULLAH, who said his wife will take part in the vote
Women in the oil-rich Gulf state, which applies a strict segregation of the sexes, are banned from driving and have to cover themselves from head to toe while in public. They also need the consent of a male guardian to travel, work, apply for a passport or to marry.
The late King Abdullah in 2011 granted women the right to vote and to stand as candidates in this year's local elections.
Saudi-funded newspaper Al-Hayat last month reported that around 200 women had expressed an interest in standing as candidates in the Dec 12 vote.
Candidate registration runs until Sept 17, while voter registration ends on Sept 14. Of the 1,263 polling stations in 284 municipalities across the monarchy, 424 have been reserved for women voters.
" I will only vote for a woman if her plan is to make cupcakes for the neighbourhood!"
"I am very excited to take part in this new experience," said Ms Amal Mohammed, 35, as she registered to vote in the Saudi port city of Jeddah.
Thirty-five-year-old Fawaz Abdullah, registering to vote at an office in Jeddah, said his wife would "of course" take part. "A woman's vote is essential and her role must not be marginalised," he said.
King Abdullah, who died in January and was succeeded by King Salman, introduced municipal elections in Saudi Arabia in 2005, when he was crown prince.
In February 2013, King Abdullah - also for the first time - named women to the Shura Council, an all-appointed consultative body.
This year, two-thirds of municipal council members will be elected while the rest will be appointed by the authorities. In the last all-male vote in 2011, half of the members were elected.
However, not everyone has welcomed the move to allow women to stand in elections.
On Twitter, more conservative Saudis have created a hash-tag in Arabic - #The-danger-of- electing-women-in-municipal-councils. "I will only vote for a woman if her plan is to make cupcakes for the neighbourhood!" one tweet said.
Human Rights Watch last month praised Saudi Arabia's "significant step forward" in allowing women to participate in the local elections. But it said that "allowing women to stand and vote in elections... is not enough to secure women's full integration into Saudi public life".
The New York-based watchdog urged the kingdom to "scrap the male guardianship system" and "ensure Saudi women have full control over all of the major decisions that affect their lives".
"Only then will Saudi Arabia's women be able to contribute to society on an equal footing with men," it added.