In Saudi Arabia, women now can cast a vote and run for office

Voting rights for Saudi women took another step forward this week. Female candidates began registering to run in upcoming municipal elections — and for the first time, women will be able to vote for them.

Voter registration began in mid-August and goes through mid-September. Sunday marked the start of candidate registration for the Dec. 12 municipal elections.

The developments came ahead of King Salman’s visit to the White House on Friday, when he and President Barack Obama are expected to discuss counterterrorism efforts, the conflicts in Yemen and Syria, and the Iran nuclear agreement.

In 2011, the now-late King Abdullah said women would be allowed to vote and run for local office in 2015 elections, and advocates were watching to see if his successor King Salman would follow through on his promise.

“It’s symbolically very important” that he did, said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch. It sends a clear message to Saudi society including the conservative population that progress on women’s issues, which started under King Abdullah, will continue, he said.

Municipal councils are the only elected bodies in the kingdom. They handle local matters, such as zoning changes, and until now the portion that wasn’t appointed was elected by men only.

This year, both men and women will vote, but separately — about one-third of the 1,263 voting sites will be designated for female voters in the conservative Muslim country, reported the Saudi Gazette.

But according to media reports, registration among women was getting a slow start.

Part of the reason might be some women — in addition to men — feel the councils are inconsequential and are simply not interested in participating, said Coogle. But women also face a unique set of challenges. To register, women need a valid ID card and proof of residency, which can be difficult to obtain since their names are usually not listed on deeds or utility bills, he said. Women also can’t drive to registration sites unless they are accompanied by a male.

“If the women’s male relative didn’t want them to participate, he could probably keep them from participating,” Coogle said.

Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system is a larger issue that needs to be addressed, he continued. Women must get permission from a male relative to get a job, go to university, even get married, he said. “These are serious steps that the government needs to look at if it really wants to liberate women and fundamentally change the role that Saudi women can play in society.”