RIYADH • Covered from head to toe and chauffeured by male guardians, Saudi women voted yesterday for the first time, in a tentative step towards easing sex discrimination in the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom.
In another first for the country, women were allowed to stand as candidates in the polls for municipal councils, the country's only elected public chambers.
"Now women have a voice," Ms Awatef Marzooq said after casting her ballot at a school in the capital. "I cried. This is something that we used to see on television taking place only in other countries."
Despite the presence of female contenders on the ballot sheet for the first time, Ms Marzooq said she had picked a male candidate because of his ideas, which included the building of more nurseries.
"I voted for a man, but I hope a woman will win," she said.
Many restrictions on women remain
Saudi women voted for the first time in elections yesterday, but still face a host of other restrictions, among the tightest in the world. Under Saudi Arabia's policies and practices, women cannot:
• Drive, as Saudi Arabia is the world's only country that bans women from getting behind the wheel.
• Travel without the consent of a male family member known as a guardian.
• Marry without the consent of a guardian.
• Work without the consent of a guardian.
• Appear in public without covering themselves in a black abaya robe from head to toe.
• Receive the same amount of inheritance as a man.
• Work in certain jobs.
• Mingle with unrelated men in public places such as restaurants.
• Divorce as easily as a man.
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy with some of the world's tightest restrictions on women, such as a ban on them driving, was the last country to allow only men to vote.
In a reminder of the continued gap between the two sexes, polling stations were segregated. Outside one centre in Riyadh for women, a succession of cars driven by men brought female voters dressed in black robes.
Most of the women asked the media not to take their photographs before they were whisked away.
Mr Mohammed al-Shammari, who had just dropped off his daughter, a teacher, said he had encouraged her to vote. "We want to break this barrier," he said.
"As long as she has her own place and there is no mixing with men, what prevents her from voting? We support anything that does not violate syariah (Islamic law)," he said.
More than 900 women are running, competing with nearly 6,000 men for seats. They have had to overcome a number of obstacles to participate in the landmark polls.
Gender segregation enforced at public facilities meant that female candidates could not directly meet any male voters during their campaigns. Women voters said registration was hindered by bureaucratic obstacles, a lack of awareness of the process and its significance, and the fact that women could not drive themselves to sign up.
As a result, women account for less than 10 per cent of registered voters and few, if any, female candidates are expected to be elected.
"To tell you the truth, I'm not running to win," said Ms Amal Badreldin al-Sawari, 60, a paediatrician in central Riyadh. "I think I have done the winning by running."
One-third of seats on Saudi Arabia's 284 councils are appointed by the Municipal Affairs Ministry, leaving women optimistic that they will at least be assigned some of them. Ms Aljazi al-Hossaini waged her 12-day campaign largely over the Internet, putting her manifesto on her website, where both men and women could see it. "I did my best, and I did everything by myself," said the 57-year-old management consultant, running in the Diriyah area on the edge of Riyadh.
According to election commission data, nearly 1.5 million people aged 18 and over are registered to vote. This includes about 119,000 women. The total native Saudi population is almost 21 million.
The polls closed at 5pm yesterday, with counting taking place today.