Reform possible as Saudi women elected

  • 15/12/2015

The election of at least 20 women to local councils in Saudi Arabia for the first time could indirectly lead to longer-term reforms in discriminatory policies, activists say.

They argue Saturday's vote (local time) in the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom is a step towards improving the rights of the Gulf nation's roughly 10 million females.

But it will not directly help end a ban on women driving – the only prohibition of its kind in the world – or the "guardianship" system.

Male guardians are family members who must authorise a woman's travel, work or marriage.

Saudi Arabia has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women, who must cover themselves in black from head to toe when they appear in public.

Restaurants and other public facilities are segregated, a division reflected in the voting, when men and women cast ballots at separate facilities.

Iman Fallata, a founder of the Baladi Initiative which helped prepare women for the vote, says although ending the guardianship system is a priority "we [will] not put a strong hope for this" immediately.

"We know it's still early stages. We know that the way is long ... but we are on the right way," she told AFP on the sidelines of a ceremony at which the Baladi Initiative was named a winner of this year's Chaillot Prize.

The annual award from the European Union delegation in Riyadh honours those working for human rights in the Gulf.

Fallata said Baladi's immediate goal is to push for 50 percent female representation on the council seats which will be appointed by the ministry of municipal affairs.

The 2106 council seats up for election last Saturday account for two thirds of total seats, with the rest appointed.

Twenty women had been elected throughout the kingdom, the election commission spokesman said on Monday.

That is fewer than one percent of the total.

Their victory "doesn't have anything to do with" ending the driving ban or guardianship, said Laila Al-Kadhem, another Baladi founder.

But she told AFP that any progress for Saudi women "will push to other developments in other areas" indirectly.