Preliminary results indicate that at least 17 women have been elected to office in Saudi Arabia in Saturday’s historic elections. The landmark elections marked the first time in the history of the conservative monarchy that women have been allowed to vote and run for office.
Among the trailblazing Saudi women, who are the first women elected to office in the country, Salma al-Oteibi in Mecca, Sanaa al-Hammam and Masoumah Abdelreda in Ahsa, Lama al-Suleiman and Rasha Hufaithi in Jeddah and Hanouf al-Hazimi in Al Jouf.
Despite these elections marking a huge step forward in equality in Saudi Arabia, there remain widespread restrictions that have limited the full participation of women in these elections.
These particular rules that required female candidates to have segregated campaign offices and prevented women from campaigning directly to male voters resulted in many conducting campaigns through social media to reach larger audiences.
For women who wanted to votes, factors such as difficulties producing identity and residency documents prevented many women from voting.
Huge discrepancies remain in the relative participation of women and men in public life, despite the (male-sanctioned) inclusion of women in these elections. CNN reported that 979 female candidates registered – compared to almost 6,000 male candidates. In terms of voters, 130,637 women registered to vote, compared to more than 1.3 million men. All together the participation of fewer than 1.5 million voters represents a small fraction of the 20 million citizens.
However, situating these elections within the history of the kingdom highlights the revolutionary nature of the participation of women in public life. The role of women in Saudi Arabia is sanctioned by a state-instituted, strict interpretation of Islam that supports systems such as male “protection” of women.
These systems deprive Saudi women of a great deal of autonomy in the public sphere by requiring women to be accompanied by a male guardian when traveling, requiring them to cover their heads, and prohibiting them from driving.
In this cultural context, the increase in women’s participation in politics and the workforce is remarkable.
The move forward does not remain without opposition from more conservative circles in Saudi society and politics. The country’s grand mufti “described the involvement of women in political life as opening the door to evil.”
These sentiments are shared by many hardline critics who remain skeptical of the movement toward the participation of women in civic life, ordered by King Abdullah in 2011 in the political backdrop of the Arab spring.
However, the success of these elections will no doubt limit the influence of these critics.
The overwhelming sentiment of these elections has been a commitment toward progress, best highlighted by prominent businesswoman and successful candidate in Jeddah, Rasha Hufaithi.
“What we started, we will continue.” -Rasha Hufaithi
Written by Sahra Magan