See Saudi Women Vote for the First Time in Local Elections

Women represented less than 10 percent of registered voters.
A Saudi woman casts her vote on Dec. 12. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)
Dec 12, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Thousands of Saudi women headed to polling stations across the Middle Eastern nation on Saturday in only the third-ever public elections in the nation—and the first in which women were able to cast their votes.

Roughly 130,000 women registered to vote, compared with 1.35 million men, the BBC reports. But for a nation of nearly 30 million people, that’s a small turnout for both sexes.

This election was also the first time women were able to run for office. Out of 6,440 candidates, 979 were women.

“I cried. This is something that we only used to see on television, taking place in other countries,” Awatef Marzooq told the AFP after she cast her ballot.

The historic vote follows a 2011 order by the late King Abdullah, who encouraged more female inclusion in politics, education, and employment. Saudi Arabia was the last nation in the world that let only men vote.

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While many hailed the landmark event as a step forward for women’s rights in the country, critics say the modest step toward equality was merely symbolic.

Saudi activist Ghada Ghazzawi makes a selfie video of the historic first vote. (Photo: Jordan Pix/Getty Images)

Women are regarded as minors in the conservative kingdom and must be accompanied by a man wherever they go. Those restrictions made both registering to vote and campaigning difficult. Registration and polling facilities were segregated. Female candidates could not campaign directly to male constituents; they had to stand behind a partition or be represented by a man.

Municipal councils, which oversee neighborhood issues such as traffic lights, trash collection, and sidewalk upkeep, have limited power. These councils do not have the power to change many women’s issues, like freedom to travel without a male companion or obtain a driver’s license.

Polling stations were segregated by gender. (Photo: Fayez Nureldine/Getty Images)

But even if it’s a symbolic gesture, many women expressed feelings of hope now that they officially have a voice in their community.

“This is a day for all Saudi women, if they voted or not,” Latifa al-Bazei told The Washington Post. “We are gaining a right that was kept from half the country for too long.”

Voting results are expected Sunday afternoon.