Women vote in first Saudi election

  • 13/12/2015
A woman leaves a polling station after casting her vote during municipal elections, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Reuters)
A woman leaves a polling station after casting her vote during municipal elections, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Reuters)

By Ian Timberlake and Karim Abou Merhi

Covered from head-to-toe and driven by male guardians, Saudi women have voted for the first time, in a tentative step towards easing sex discrimination in the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom.

In another first, women were allowed to stand on Saturday (local time) as candidates in the polls for municipal councils, the country's only elected public chambers.

"Now women have a voice," Awatef Marzooq said after casting her ballot for the first time at a school in the capital.

"I cried. This is something that we only used to see on television taking place in other countries."

Despite the presence of female contenders on the ballot sheet for the first time, Marzooq said she had picked a male candidate because of his ideas including more nurseries.

"I voted for a man, but I hope a woman will win," she said.

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy with some of the world's tightest restrictions on women, including a ban on driving, was the last country to allow only men to vote.

In a reminder of the continued gap between the two sexes, polling stations were segregated.

Outside one centre in Riyadh for women, a succession of cars driven by men brought female voters dressed in black robes.

Most of the women asked the media not to take their photograph before they were whisked away.

Mohammed al-Shammari, who had just dropped off his daughter, a teacher, said he had encouraged her to vote.

"We want to break this barrier," he said.

"As long as she has her own place and there is no mixing with men, what prevents her from voting? We support anything that does not violate sharia (Islamic law)," he said.

More than 900 women are running, competing with nearly 6000 men for seats. They have had to overcome a number of obstacles to participate in the landmark poll.

Gender segregation enforced at public facilities meant that female candidates could not directly meet any male voters during their campaigns.

As campaigning began last month, three activists said they had been disqualified from running.

They included Loujain Hathloul, who spent more than two months in jail after trying to drive into the kingdom from the United Arab Emirates late last year, in a case that attracted worldwide attention.

An appeals committee reversed her disqualification just two days before the end of campaigning, Hathloul said on Twitter.