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Saudi women win seats in historic vote

December 13, 2015

A number of women have won seats on municipal councils in the first-ever Saudi election allowing female voters and candidates, officials and media say. The result marks a milestone in the conservative kingdom's history.

Saudi Arabien Wahlen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Yosri

At least nine women were elected into public office in Saturday's landmark vote, Saudi officials and media said on Sunday.

The female winners will take their places on councils in the capital, Riyadh, the city of Jeddah, the Mecca region, the northern al-Jawf province and the eastern province of al-Ihsa, according to the official press agency SPA.

Nine hundred and seventy-nine of the 6,917 candidates who ran in the elections for seats on 284 municipal councils were women.

Less than ten percent of the voters were female, owing in part to the obstacles they faced before participating in the elections, including transportation problems because of the kingdom's ban on female drivers and bureaucratic hindrances to voter registration.

The councils are responsible only for local affairs and have virtually no political power, but the result is a massive step forward in a country where women still require a male guardian to transact official business.

Repressive clerics

Until Saturday's election, Saudi Arabia was the last country to allow only men to vote. The decision to allow women to participate in the vote was taken in 2011 by King Abdullah, who died in January.

Under Abdullah, women began to take on a larger public role; he even ordered that 20 percent of members of the Shura Council, the kingdom's consultative body, be female.

Saudi-Arabiens König Abdullah ist tot
Abdullah also encouraged female employmentImage: Reuters/D. Martinez

But it remains to be seen whether this development will continue, given the opposition from many Saudi clerics to even small moves toward women's emancipation. The country's most senior religious figure, the Grand Mufti, has even warned that allowing women's involvement in politics was "opening the door to evil."

Final official results from the elections have yet to be announced. Some media reports suggested that they will be released only after appeals against preliminary results have been settled, a process that could take as long as three weeks.

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy with no elected parliament, is coming under increasing Western scrutiny owing to its human rights record. In addition to its tight restrictions on women and extremely limited press freedom, it also carries out public executions for crimes including adultery, sorcery, witchcraft and apostasy.

tj/jm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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