2 seats awarded to women in Saudi vote

  • 14/12/2015
A Saudi woman leaves a polling station after casting her vote during municipal elections (Reuters)
A Saudi woman leaves a polling station after casting her vote during municipal elections (Reuters)

At least two women have won municipal council seats in Saudi Arabia's first ever election open to female voters and candidates, officials say, in a milestone for the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom.

Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi was elected to a council in the holy city of Mecca, the official SPA news agency reported on Sunday, citing election commission president Osama al-Bar.

She ran against seven men and two women in Saturday's ballot, he added.

A second woman, Hanouf bint Mufrih bin Ayid al-Hazmi, was elected in the northwestern region of Jawf, SPA said, as fresh results were being released on Sunday afternoon.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with some of the world's tightest restrictions on women, including a ban on driving.

It was the last country to allow only men to vote, and polling stations were segregated during the ballot.

Among the 6440 candidates running for seats on 284 councils were more than 900 women, who had to overcome a number of obstacles to participate in the landmark poll.

Female candidates could not meet face-to-face with male voters during campaigning, while neither men nor women could publish their pictures.

Women voters said registration was hindered by factors including bureaucratic obstacles and a lack of transportation.

As a result, women accounted for less than 10 per cent of registered voters and few female candidates were expected to be elected.

According to election commission data, nearly 1.5 million people aged 18 and over were registered for the polls.

This included about 119,000 women, out of a total native Saudi population of almost 21 million.

Female candidates expressed pride in running, even if they didn't think they would win, while women voters, some of them tearful, said they were happy at finally being able to do something they had only seen on television or in movies.

Nassima al-Sadah, an activist in the eastern city of Qatif, said it didn't matter whether women voted for their own sex.

"The important thing is that you need to support a good person," and to exercise the right to vote, she said.

Sadah, who herself voted for a man, was disqualified for unknown reasons on the eve of the campaign. She has taken authorities to court over her exclusion.

Ruled by the Al-Saud family of King Salman, Saudi Arabia has no elected legislature and faces intense Western scrutiny of its rights record.

A slow expansion of women's rights began under Salman's predecessor Abdullah who announced four years ago that women would take part in the 2015 municipal elections.