Women in Saudi Arabia Just Registered to Vote for the First Time

It’s a step toward gender equality, but some say it doesn’t do nearly enough to advance the cause.
An Egyptian woman living in Saudi Arabia casts her ballot in the early voting for the presidential election in 2014. (Photo: Faye Nureldine/Getty Images)
Aug 23, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

For some, the process of registering to vote can be daunting, frustrating, and entirely forgettable. For Jamal al-Saadi, registering to vote for the first time was a dream come true. Saadi is one of two women who made history last week by registering to vote in Saudi Arabia, four years after the government granted women the right to participate in local elections, according to Al Jazeera.

Voter registration for December’s municipal elections officially began on Saturday but opened a week early in Medina and Mecca, the Muslim holy cities where Saadi and her history-making counterpart, Safinaz Abu Al-Shamat, respectively reside.

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It marks the first election since the late Saudi King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run for office in 2011. Up until then, Saudi Arabia was the only other country besides Vatican City that allowed men but not women to vote. The voting change was part of a series of policies aimed at encouraging women’s participation in education and politics. King Abdullah, who passed away earlier this year, appointed the country’s first female deputy to his cabinet and opened the first coed university in the country during his 10-year rule.

The new policy was viewed as a step toward gender equality in a country where women are banned from driving and leaving the house without a male chaperone, but some critics say it’s only a minor victory within the broader context of Saudi politics and culture. In a statement issued in 2011, Philip Luther, deputy director of Amnesty International, called the voting change a “welcome, albeit limited, step along the long road towards gender equality in Saudi Arabia,” but he said it does not go far enough, given that the country still requires male chaperones for women.

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In a recent op-ed for CNN, human rights advocate Vanessa Tucker wrote that the voting move in Saudi Arabia is an advancement on paper only, given that elections—and particularly municipal elections, which are partly decided by royal appointment—have limited impact. The concept of progress in Saudi Arabia is a “myth,” wrote Tucker, vice president for analysis at the nongovernmental organization Freedom House.

The registration period lasts for another three weeks—still enough time for Saadi and other women to nominate themselves for candidacy.