Saudi women register to vote for the first time

The country still has a long way to go, but the move is a huge step towards equal rights.

Peter Iantorno August 20, 2015

This week, for the first time in history, women in Saudi Arabia registered to vote.

In a watershed moment for the country, which previously hadn’t allowed women to either stand or vote in elections, registration for voting in the municipal elections, due to take place in December, was opened to women in Medina and Mecca.

While the initial turnout was startlingly low (just five women registered in Medina and seven in Mecca during the first day), registration is set to open for the entire country on Saturday and a far higher turnout is expected before registration closes on September 14.

The decision to allow women to vote was brought about by the late King Abdullah, who first announced that women would be granted equal voting rights four years ago as part of a larger gradual reform effort.

As well as being allowed to vote in the upcoming municipal election, the new rules dictate that women can also stand for election, and according to Arab News, up to 80 women across Saudi Arabia will stand for seats on the civic council when the country goes to the polls in December.

The reforms have also seen Saudi Arabia take other small steps towards gender equality, including the first mixed-sex university and the appointment of Noor Al Fayez as the country’s first female minister.

While the move has been met mostly with praise, the country still faces criticism in some quarters from those who say the reforms don't go far enough.

“This long overdue move is welcome, but it’s only a tiny fraction of what needs to be addressed over gender inequality in Saudi Arabia,” a spokesperson from Amnesty International said in reaction to the news.

“Let’s not forget that Saudi Arabian women won’t actually be able to drive themselves to the voting booths as they’re still completely banned from driving. Many wide-ranging reforms are still needed for human rights to become a reality in Saudi Arabia.”

The 'ban on driving' the Amnesty International spokesperson refers to is certainly an area of concern, and something that must be addressed if Saudi is to complete the transition into gender equality.

While there isn’t actually any law prohibiting women from driving in the country, there are religious edicts issued by conservative Muslim clerics, which prevent women from obtaining licences. One cleric even claimed that driving could harm a woman’s ovaries – a suggestion, it must be said, that was ridiculed by most Saudis.

While there is clearly a long way to go on the route to gender equality in Saudi Arabia, there can be no doubt that the move to give women the vote is at least a step in the right direction.