Making History

Women at vote

On December 12, 2015, Saudi women participated for the first time in municipal elections, where they could both vote and stand without seeking the approval of a male guardian. In […]

On December 12, 2015, Saudi women participated for the first time in municipal elections, where they could both vote and stand without seeking the approval of a male guardian. In the male-dominated Saudi society, 979 females ran for positions and 21 were elected, thus making history.

Of the 1.48 million registered Saudi voters, 702,542 casted ballots, representing just under half of all registered voters and only 10% of all eligible voters. Much enthusiasm was shared among women; of the 130,637 women who registered, more than 80% showed up at the polling stations, indicating the keenness of Saudi women in having their voices heard. The December elections were only the third elections held in the Kingdom in recent history, as public participation in country’s affairs was banned until then-Crown Prince Abdullah reintroduced this form of representation in July 2004. Elections took place in 2005 and those planned for 2009 were postponed to 2011. For those two elections, only men were allowed to vote for a section of exclusively male candidates who ran for half of the seats on municipal councils.

Would-be female candidates and voters faced numerous administrative and social obstacles to both voting and running. A limited number of registration centers were reserved for women, with women only able to register at 424 of the total 1,263 polling stations. Some women could not register due to difficulties in proving identity and residency, while others simply could not reach the polls, as women are not allowed to drive.
While the low turnout is mostly the result of gender segregation laws that have historically kept women away from taking part in social life, some women actually boycotted the event, believing there are still more urgent rights to be granted. As a result, 99% of eligible Saudi women did not take part in their first chance to vote, and only 1% of the 2,106 seats up for grabs went to female candidates.

In line with the segregation rules in Saudi Arabia, women could not directly address male voters. In a bid to create a more fair competition, the General Election Committee established that neither men nor women could appear on television nor show their faces in flyers or billboards. Regardless, female candidates found brilliant ways to spread their message using alternative platforms, reaching potential voters through platforms such as YouTube, Snapchat, and Facebook.

Women promised greener cities, practical solutions to traffic, innovative ideas for recycling, as well as more nurseries for working mothers and the creation of youth community centers for cultural and sport activities.
Municipal councils do not actually have any executive or legislative authority but are rather a consulting arm of the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs. The councils are tasked with monitoring municipalities’ activities as well as considering requests and complaints from citizens and submitting reports to the government authorities. A recent decision by the government increased the number of councils from 179 to 284, as well as the number of council members who are elected rather than appointed, from one-half to two-thirds. The remaining 1,053 seats are appointed by the Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs following the approval of the King. In 2005, late King Abdullah allowed women to run for positions in local chambers of commerce, and in January 2013 he appointed 30 women to the 150-member Majlis Ash-Shura, the highest advisory body to the Saudi king.

The role of women in the kingdom has slowly been evolving, as they continue their long march toward greater participation in public life. Though Saudi Arabia is the last of the six Gulf monarchies to give women the right to vote, challenges to equal representation in elected positions are not only visible in the Kingdom. Similar conditions are reflected in many governing bodies worldwide. According to the World Bank, women account for only 23% of seats in national parliaments, making up only a small fraction of the world’s elected officials.