Voting began on Saturday in Saudi Arabia’s first elections open to female voters and candidates, a tentative step towards easing restrictions that are among the world’s tightest on women. Male voters began to enter a polling centre in central Riyadh at about 8:00 am (0500 GMT), reporters said.
Men and women vote separately in the kingdom, where the sexes are strictly segregated. Fewer than 10 men had arrived to cast early ballots at the centre, according to reporters. After checking their names on sheets of paper hanging on the wall and verifying their eligibility with elections staff, each voter made his choice on a ballet paper which he dropped into a transparent box.
The absolute Islamic monarchy, where women are banned from driving and must cover themselves from head-to-toe in public, is the last country where only men were allowed to vote. More than 900 women are running for seats on municipal councils, the kingdom’s sole elected public chambers.
They are up against nearly 6,000 men competing for places on 284 councils whose powers are restricted to local affairs including responsibility for streets, public gardens and rubbish collection.
Gender segregation enforced at public facilities meant that female candidates could not directly meet the majority of voters – men – during their campaigns. Women also said voter 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, less than one in 10 voters are women and few, if any, female candidates are expected to win. But one-third of council seats are appointed by the municipal affairs ministry, leaving women optimistic that they will at least be assigned some of them. But win or lose, the female contenders say they are already victorious.
“To tell you the truth, I’m not running to win,” said Amal Badreldin al-Sawari, 60, a paediatrician in central Riyadh. “I think I have done the winning by running.” She said she became a candidate out of patriotism and because Islam gives women rights.
“Men and women have equal rights in many things,” she said, reciting a relevant verse from the Koran, and adding that everyone she encountered was supportive of her campaign.