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Saudi women vote, run as candidates for first time

Across Saudi Arabia women headed to polling stations as both candidates and voters for the first time in the country’s history. The vote is seen as a tentative step towards easing tight restrictions on women.

More than 5,000 men and around 980 women are running as candidates in Saturday's landmark local municipal election. They are competing for places on 284 councils whose powers are restricted to local affairs including responsibility for streets, public gardens and rubbish collection.

Around 130,000 women, or one in 10 eligible females, have registered to vote, compared to 1.35 million men.

Municipal councils are the only government bodies that are elected by the popular vote. Saturday's election is only the third time in recent decades that Saudi men have been able to cast their ballots.

Saudi Arabia's strict gender segregation rules mean men and women are casting their ballots at separate polling stations.

Low registration numbers

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Saudi Arabia: Courageous women at the forefront of change

The country, an absolute Islamic monarchy, disallows women from driving and they must cover themselves from head-to-toe in public. It has remained the last country in the world where only men are allowed to vote.

Saudi women said voter numbers were low because registration was hindered by bureaucratic obstacles, a lack of awareness as to the process and its significance, and the fact women could not drive themselves to sign up.

The vote is widely seen as a small, but significant opening for women to play a more equal role in Saudi society.

'I'm not running to win'

Prior to the election, several female candidates said they have already won.

"To tell you the truth, I'm not running to win," Amal Badreldin al-Sawari, a 60-year-old paediatriciation in central Riyadh told the AFP news agency. "I think I have done the winning by running."

Sawari says she became a candidate out of patriotism and because Islam gives women rights.

In the lead up to the election, women were prohibited from campaigning in public, leaving many of them to campaign over the Internet where both men and women could see it.

Saudi-Arabien - Kandidatin für die Regionalwahlen

Women account for less than 10 percent of registered voters. Few, if any, candidates are expected to be successful

When campaigning began last month, three activists were reportedly disqualified from running, including Loujain Hathloul who spent more than two months in jail after attempting to drive into the kingdom from the United Arab Emirates late last year, a case which garnered worldwide attention.

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

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia has a population of 21 million people and boasts some of the most modern infrastructure of highways, skyscrapers and shopping malls.

Saudi women face many restrictions, and must gain permission from male family members to travel, work or marry.

Ballots will be counted on Sunday.

jlw/rc (AFP, AP)

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