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Saudi Women Exercise Franchise for the First Time; 20 Emerged Victorious
Dec 16, 2015

In the historic elections in Saudi Arabia, women covered from head to toe and driven by male guardians, voted on 12 December for the first time, in a tentative step towards easing sex discrimination in the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Key Features

  • Women were allowed first time to stand as candidates in the polls for municipal councils, the country’s only elected public chambers.

  • The elections last weekend saw 979 women candidates out of a total of around 7,000 candidates, of whom 20 women managed to notch historic victories.

  • 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.

  • Polling stations were segregated for males and females.

  • There are 284 councils in Saudi Arabia whose powers are restricted to local affairs including responsibility for streets, public gardens and garbage collection.

  • The civic elections to nearly 2,000 seats saw some 130,637 women registered as voters. It was barely 10 % of the male voters, but 82% of them trooped out to exercise their franchise.

  • Comparing to females just 44 % of the male voters came to vote, among the total population comprising 55 % males.

  • The municipal poll saw a turnout of about 47 percent.

  • Electioneering was low key, with rules preventing photographs of candidates applying to both men and women.

  • A candidate, Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi became the first woman to win from the Madrakah municipal council, around 150 kms north of the holy city of Makkah.

  • Saudi officials first proposed allowing women to vote in 2005. 

  • The late King Abdullah, who died in January, issued a decree in 2011 ordering that women be allowed to vote in municipal elections and stand as candidates.

  • In 2013, King Abdullah ordered that at least 20% of seats in the Consultative Council be set aside for women. He appointed 30 women to the Council.

  • The number of women in the Saudi workforce also has been increasing, from 23,000 in 2004 to more than 400,000 in 2015.

The move to allow women to vote has been described as a step forward for equality in the male-dominated kingdom. All over the world, the right to vote is considered a fundamental right for all citizens, and in Saudi Arabia a small beginning has been made for women, who were deprived of equal rights for ages.

Saudi Arabia is known for strictly enforcing religious discipline on women, including a stringent dress code, severely restricted public movements and other curbs.

Saudi women have faced significant obstacles in their fight for their right to vote and run in the municipal council elections, but their participation on December 12 voting send a strong signal to Saudi society that women are continuing the long march toward greater participation in public life. 

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