Saudi Arabia elects up to 17 female councillors in historic election

In a historic first for Saudi Arabia, up to 17 women have been elected as local councillors in a poll in which women — who are banned from driving and suffer routine discrimination in many other ways — were allowed to vote and to be candidates.

Official results from Saturday’s election for municipal councils produced female winners across the conservative kingdom, including four in Jeddah on the Red Sea; one near Mecca, home to Islam’s holiest site; and in Tabuk, Ahsaa and Qatif, in the eastern province. Several others, reported by al-Sabq online newspaper, were expected to be confirmed later.

Rasha Hefzi, a prominent businesswoman who won a seat in Jeddah, thanked all those who supported her campaign and trusted her, pledging: “What we have started we will continue.”

Hefzi and other candidates used social media to contact voters because of restrictions on women meeting men and bans on both sexes using photographs.

Turnout was low, estimated at about 25%, as was registration, with just 1.35 million men and 130 000 women out of a population of some 20 million — underlining the sheer unfamiliarity of elections in the absolute monarchy.

But there was surprise at the number of women who took seats. “I think it’s great that several women won in different regions of Saudi Arabia,” commented the writer Maha Akeel. “It shows how much Saudi society has progressed on the issue of not only accepting but actually supporting women in public office and this could mean that more change is to come. I’m surprised. We expected maybe one or two women would win.”

Local elections were held in 2005 and 2011 but this was the first time women were allowed to take part. The powers of municipal councils are limited to advising local government and helping oversee budgets. Still, the election has been hailed by women activists as a crucial first step towards achieving wider rights that are taken for granted elsewhere — and broadening understanding of civic engagement.

“I don’t consider winning to be the ultimate goal,” said the Riyadh-based historian Hatoon al-Fassi, coordinator for the grassroots Saudi Baladi Initiative, which worked to raise voter awareness and increase female participation. “But it is the right of being a citizen that I concentrate on and I consider this a turning point.”

No candidates addressed broader issues of democracy, human rights or the role of sharia law and punishments — which attract so much attention abroad. Saudis who boycotted the poll dismissed it as window dressing, arguing that real power rests firmly with the royal family, the religious establishment and male ministers.

Women have previously been appointed to the Shura (consultative) council and hold senior positions in business and academia.

Salima bint Hazab al-Otaibi won a council seat in the Mecca district of Madrakah, where all the other successful candidates were men.

Lama al-Sulaiman, a prominent British-educated biochemist and vice president of the Jeddah chamber of commerce, also won in Jeddah, alongside 10 male candidates.

“We have reached a point where a lot of us believe we need to progress, irrespective of sharia law,” Sulaiman told the Guardian last week. “Everyone wants to improve their living standards.”

Hanuf al-Hazmi, elected in the Jawf region, said in an interview with a local news website that she would make a special effort to deal with women’s issues — focusing on childcare, youth centres, roads, rubbish collection and parks.

Official Saudi media have been promoting the election and the participation of women, which was ordered by the late King Abdullah in 2011 as part of the response to Arab spring unrest across the region. Even critics of the Al Saud ruling family say they are pleased the pledge was carried through by his more conservative successor King Salman.

Before it was announced that women would take part in this year’s polls, the country’s Grand Mufti, its most senior religious figure, described women’s involvement in politics as “opening the door to evil”. Opposition among hardline clerics is still strong.

“Now women have a voice,” Awatef Marzooq told the Saudi Gazette on Saturday after casting her ballot for the first time at a Riyadh school. “I cried. This is something that we only used to see on television taking place in other countries.”

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. 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 sharia.”

For all the excitement, Saudi women are still banned from driving and are required to cover themselves in public. They are subject to other routine restrictions including the permission of a male guardian to leave the country. – By Ian Black

Image – A Saudi woman casts her ballot in a polling station in the coastal city of Jeddah, on December 12, 2015. Saudi women were allowed to vote in elections for the first time ever. (AFP / STR)