This year, Saudi Arabian women achieved a significant milestone: for the first time in history, women were allowed to vote in Saudi Arabia’s elections on Saturday, December 12th. Over 900 women ran for seats and were up against almost 6,000 men, all competing for places on the 284 councils that control local affairs. These include responsibility for streets, public gardens and rubbish collection. Due to strict gender separation in public places, none of the female candidates could meet with male voters.
Despite this step towards equality in the last country that does not allow women to vote, turnout was only around 25 percent. As this is only the third time that Saudi citizens have voted in polls, this was likely due to lack of experience with the electoral process. Women were also excluded from the last two elections. The lack of experience, bureaucratic obstacles and the fact that women could not drive themselves to the polls meant that less than one in 10 women voted and very few women won the elections.
This is a great leap forward, in a country that still requires women to have a male accompany them while traveling. As Jamal Elshayyal, reporter for Al Jazeera said, “People here are hoping that this is a significant step on the paths towards having a more inclusive society, not only for women, but also for youth because the voting age has been reduced from 21 to 18.”
Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi womens’ rights activist and writer tweeted, “This is a new day. The day of the Saudi woman.”
On the other hand, as one candidate, Lama al-Sulaiman, explained, “Women here are doctors and engineers- it’s not like women aren’t there. The international media sometimes has narrow views; they only report the bad stories. We have them, we have weaknesses and every citizen goes through challenges- these shouldn’t be belittled. But to think that 50 percent of the population is going through these challenges is also ridiculous.”
Allowing youth to vote, opens up the way towards even more progress. Though it seems like progress is slow, Haifa al-Hababi, the first women to sign up to stand for local office this year has this to say, “Saudi Arabia is a new and small country, only 85 years old. We are the generation who will bring change.” When it comes to real issues, a lot of the engagement happens on social media. Saudi Arabia has the highest per capita usage of Twitter and Youtube in the world. Imagine if the younger generation was encouraged to use their voices not just on social media, but by voting and participating in elections.
We so often believe that idea that Saudi Arabia is a completely backward country that oppresses women, so much so that we eat up any evidence that continues to prove this. However, we forget that in other ways, like becoming doctors and engineers, women are making leaps forward. On December 13th, it was announced that 20 women were elected for local government seats. Most of them used social media to campaign. These women represent 1% of the approximate 2,100 municipal council seats open for election. Maybe next election we will see this number double or even triple.