Saudi Arabia held its first ever election open to both female voters & candidates on Saturday, in a tentative step towards easing restrictions on women.
Saudi citizens, including thousands of women, cast their ballots in a poll hailed by many as historic. The conservative kingdom, where women are banned from driving & must cover themselves in public, is the world's last to donate its women the right to vote.
"I am pleased for having voted for the first time in my life," a woman, who declined to donate her name,Â told the DPA news agency after leaving a polling station in the capital Riyadh.
Another female voter, Najla Harir, said: "I exercised my electoral right. We are optimistic approximately a bright future for women in our homeland."
Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi womens' rights activist & writer, said in a tweet: "This is a new day. The day of the Saudi woman".
Fahda Al-Rwali, a female voter, explained why the election was significant for her.
"As a woman, I need some services, some needs in my neighbourhood, like nurseries for longer time. I need social centers for youth & retirement, like this. So maybe the woman can concentrate more than the man on those needs."
Al Jazeera's Jamal Elshayyal, reporting from Riyadh after the polls closed,Â described the elections as "momentous".
"People here are hoping this is a significant step on the paths towards having a more inclusive society, not only for women yet moreover for youth because the voting age has been reduced from 21 to 18," he said
Saturday's municipal polls were open from 8am until 5pm local time (05:00-14:00 GMT).
More than 900 women are running for seats.
They are up against nearly 6,000 men competing for places on 284 councils whose powers are restricted to local affairs including responsibility for streets, public gardens & rubbish collection.
A strict separation of the sexes in public facilities meant that female candidates could not directly meet the majority of voters – men – during their campaigns.
Women moreover said voter registration was hindered by bureaucratic obstacles, a lack of awareness of the process & its significance, & the fact that women could not drive themselves to sign up.
As a result, less than one in 10 voters are women & few, if any, female candidates are expected to win.
But one-third of council seats are appointed by the municipal affairs ministry, leaving women optimistic that they will at least be assigned some of them.
'Not running to win'
Electioneering has been low key, with rules preventing photographs of candidates applied to both men & women. But win or lose, the female contenders say they are already victorious.
"We have legal controls, which forbid the publication of women's photos – during elections & in all our work. And if women's photos are not allowed, it would only be right, fair & equal to ban photos of all candidates", Jadie al-Qahtani, the head of the election's executive committee, said.
"What's more significant are the programmes of candidates from both sexes," he was quoted by the Okaz newspaper as saying.
Speaking to Al Jazeera hours before polls opened, several women said they felt excited & positive that women are participating, with the hope that society as a whole would benefit from more diversity in public affairs leadership.
"Women here are doctors & engineers – it's not like women aren't there," Lama al-Sulaiman, a candidate in Jeddah, told Al Jazeera.
"The international media sometimes has narrow views; they only report the offensive stories. We have them, we have weaknesses & every citizen goes through challenges – those shouldn't be belittled.
"But to think that 50 percent of the population is going through those challenges is moreover ridiculous."
Mona Abu Suliman, a media personality & consultant in Riyadh, said that even if women don't win, just going through this process is important.
"Recognising women's votes in decision-making is a step towards equality," she said.
"There are people who see women voting & running in the election as another step towards Westernisation. They dislike seeing women in public-facing roles. But I don't think they are in the majority. The majority is either neutral or accepting."
Source: “Al Jazeera”