Women in Saudi Arabia are heading to the polls today for the first time in a historic moment for the ultra-conservative gender-segregated country.
Less than 10 per cent of registered voters are woman, and more than 900 woman candidates are running in field of nearly 6,000 men in the local municipal elections.
The candidates are vying for around 2,100 council seats with an additional 1,050 seats appointed with approval from the king.
And while they may be campaigning for local issues – the councils chiefly deal with neighbourhood concerns – it’s been welcomed as a positive step in terms of opening up Saudi society for women.
Campaigning has been challenging for the candidates, as they navigate strict gender segregation laws, which has seen men and women cast their votes at separate polling stations.
Women will also have to rely on men to drive them to polling stations.
Women aren’t allowed to directly address male voters at campaign rallies, instead relying on a male representative to stump for them, or make their pitch from behind a screen, meaning most are using social media to get their message across.
‘We’ve been waiting for this opportunity for the past ten years to be able to participate in the political and social decision-making of the country,’ said Faweyza al-Hurdi, a candidate in Riyyadh as she met with her campaign manager.
‘I think there are limitations in being able to meet with the public so I decided to go to malls to meet with the community and this is what prompted me to focus on social media in my electoral campaign, where everyone can communicate so I can get the largest number of voters,’ she told France 24.
Both male and female candidates have relied heavily on social media to reach voters, using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to announce campaign events and explain their platforms, which include ideas such as creating more youth centres, nurseries, parks and improving roads.
With only 130,000 registered women voters however, compared to 1.35 million men, it is unlikely many, if any, women will be elected.
But for a number of candidates, simply being on the ballot is to have already won.
‘To tell you the truth, I’m not running to win,’ said Amal Badreldin al-Sawari, 60, a paediatrician in central Riyadh told AFP.
‘I think I have done the winning by running.’
Hatoon Al-Fassi is the general coordinator for the grassroots Saudi Baladi Initiative that worked closely with women to raise voter awareness and increase female participation in the election.
‘I don’t consider winning to be the ultimate goal … but it is the right of being a citizen that I concentrate on and I consider this a turning point,’ she said.
‘We are looking at it as an opportunity to exercise our right and to push for more.’
One-third of seats on Saudi’s 284 councils are appointed by the municipal affairs ministry, leaving women optimistic that they will at least be assigned some of them.
While the municipal councils do not have legislative powers, they do oversee a range of community issues, such as budgets for maintaining and improving public facilities.
All major decision-making powers rest solely in the hands of King Salman and the all-male Cabinet of ministers.
Not only have legal barriers made campaigning difficult, the women have also had to battle conservative male voters, who oppose women’s participation in mixed society.
Abdullah Al-Maiteb made his way into a polling station in the capital Riyadh this morning, expressing a widely held sentiment about why women shouldn’t be on the ballot.
‘Her role is not in such places. Her role is at home managing the house and raising a new generation,’ he said. ‘If we allow her out of the house to do such business, who is going to take care of my sons?’
It’s the third time in recent decades that Saudi men have been allowed to vote. The first local council election was held in 2005 and the second in 2011, with only men taking part.