(RIYADH, Saudi Arabia) — Thousands of Saudi women headed to polling stations across the kingdom on Saturday, both as voters and candidates for the first time in a landmark election.
Nearly 6,000 men and around 980 women are running as candidates for local municipal council seats. More than 130,000 women have registered to vote compared to 1.35 million men. The General Election Commission says there are at least 5 million eligible voters out of a population of 20 million, but the figure could be much higher.
The election, which does not have quotas for females, is widely seen as an incremental but significant opening for women to play a more equal role in Saudi society.
Candidate Latifa Al-Bazei, a 53-year-old public school principal, said her participation in the race felt like a continuation of her service to the community. She wants to see Saudi Arabia’s majority youth population under 25 years old get more involved in their local communities.
“I’ve served 23 years as a teacher and school administrator … My goal is development, change and innovation,” she said at a Riyadh polling station after casting her vote.
At the King Salman Social Center in Riyadh, Shara Al-Qahtani, a 50-year-old mother of eight, cast her vote for a male candidate whose name she says she recognized. Her two daughters said they voted for female candidates.
Al-Qahtani, wearing a loose black dress known as an “abaya” that all women must wear in public and a traditional veil covering her face and hair, said women being allowed to vote “is good for people and good for society … Women are partners of men.”
Despite enthusiasm for the race among some, not many women are expected to win seats because of the sheer number of male candidates and because many had no previous experience running campaigns. Many women said they also could not afford the high cost of running a highly visible campaign.
“I don’t consider winning to be the ultimate goal … but it is the right of being a citizen that I concentrate on and I consider this a turning point,” said Hatoon Al-Fassi, general coordinator for the grassroots Saudi Baladi Initiative that worked closely with women to raise voter awareness and increase female participation in the election.
“We are looking at it as an opportunity to exercise our right and to push for more,” she added.
Female candidates will also contend with a deep societal belief among many Saudi voters that women do not belong in public life. Abdullah Al-Maiteb made his way into a polling station in the capital Riyadh Saturday morning, expressing a widely held sentiment about why women shouldn’t be on the ballot.
“Her role is not in such places. Her role is at home managing the house and raising a new generation,” he said. “If we allow her out of the house to do such business, who is going to take care of my sons?”