At least 20 Saudi women emerged victorious in Saturday’s historic local elections in which females in this religiously conservative kingdom were allowed to cast votes and run for office for the first time.
With seats on 284 municipal councils up for grabs and about 1,000 women and 7,000 men competing, females won only a small fraction of the races, according to early results. Still, local and international rights activists praised the tally as a victory for women in a fundamentalist Muslim country where they face many restrictions.
Voter turnout among women was exceptionally high.
Nearly 81% of 130,000 female registered voters cast ballots, said General Election Commission spokesman Hamad Al-Omar.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Omar, who pointed out that the turnout among Saudi women was higher than in many elections in Western countries. (By comparison, just 10% of eligible voters participated in the March 3 municipal election in Los Angeles.)
Among 1.35 million registered Saudi male voters, about 44% turned out, Omar said.
The commission spokesman said women won seats in regions throughout the country, with four elected in the capital of Riyadh.
Municipal council members do not hold much power in Saudi Arabia, where all major decisions are made by King Salman and his handpicked cabinet. The councils oversee local issues, including budgets for the upkeep of public facilities.
Many female activists held the elections up as an important opportunity to be heard in a country where women remain banned from driving and subject to strict male guardianship laws.
Local elections were opened to women at the decree of the late King Abdullah, who oversaw other reforms welcomed by women’s rights activists, including the appointment of women to a national advisory council and allowing women to work in an expanded number of professions.