Saudi Arabia has taken a first tentative step towards the elimination of restrictions on women voters and political candidates, albeit on that remains in line with a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Surprisingly Saudi Arabia was not the only country where females were disenfranchised: there is yet another state in the world where women have never been able to cast a vote: Vatican City.
More than 900 women, self-nominated as candidates, ran for local government positions despite gender segregation laws that prevent them from directly communicating with members of the opposite sex during their campaigns – they were not permitted to participate in TV debates or appear on campaign posters. The vote decided two-thirds of the 284 municipal councils in Saudi Arabia, while the remaining third is appointed directly by the government.
Women were granted the right to vote by King Abdullah in 2011.
At the time, the move was criticized as politically motivated and not extreme enough, especially given the fact that Saudi women cannot legally drive, argue in court or appear in public unchaperoned.
Despite pushback from some opponents, more than 130,600 women have registered to vote. However, that number pales in comparison with the country’s 1.35 million registered male voters.
As female candidates in Saudi Arabia could only speak directly to women voters, at male campaign meetings, they had to either speak from behind a partition, or have a man read their speech on their behalf.
Furthermore voting for women is complicated by the fact that they cannot drive themselves or go out in public without a male relative.
But there is also the possibility that the government could step in and allot a proportion of the council seats it decides, through, the Municipal Affairs Ministry, to women.
As campaigning began last month, three activists said they had been disqualified from running.
They included Loujain Hathloul, who spent more than two months in jail after trying to drive into the kingdom from the UAE late last year, in a case that attracted worldwide attention.
An appeals committee reversed her disqualification just two days before the end of campaigning, Nassima Al Sadah, a human-rights activist in the Gulf coast city of Qatif, said she had begun legal action over her own disqualification.
In Taef, in western Saudi Arabia, security authorities have launched an investigation into a pamphlet attributed to conservative religious figures who asked voters not to cast ballots for female candidates.
The pamphlet claimed that voting for women was religiously unacceptable and warned that voting for people who did not deserve to be elected amounted to a sin.