Friday 21 October 2016

Saudis elect 17 women for first time despite obstacles

Magdy Samaan

Published 14/12/2015 | 02:30

A Saudi woman casts her ballot at a polling station in the coastal city of Jeddah
A Saudi woman casts her ballot at a polling station in the coastal city of Jeddah

Saudi Arabia has elected 17 female politicians to municipal posts after a historic poll that allowed women to vote and run as candidates for the first time.

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"When I was told that I won, I cried with joy, the happiness of any human being who gets something for the first time," said Salma bint Hazab al-Otaibi, who won a seat in the Madrika district of Mecca.

"My husband worried about me - he worried I would be upset if I lost," said Mrs Otaibi, a teacher with two sons. "But I have trust in God and those who voted for me."

The election marked an important step forward in a country where women are banned from driving and are legally dependent on a male relative for most decisions.

Under the late King Abdullah, steps were taken to permit women a bigger public role, sending more of them to university and encouraging female employment.

However, the quest for equality in Saudi Arabia is likely to be limited due to a wider lack of democracy and continued social conservatism.

Before King Abdullah announced women would take part in the elections, the country's Grand Mufti, its most senior religious figure, described women's involvement in politics as "opening the door to evil".

Mrs Otaibi said her husband had welcomed the decision to run for office - but she had faced a number of obstacles.

More than 900 women were among 6,440 candidates running for seats on 284 councils. But female candidates could not meet face-to-face with male voters. Neither men nor women could publish their pictures.

Mrs Otaibi said about 90pc of women in her district didn't have identity cards, meaning they were unable to vote. Many with identity cards were then refused permission to vote by their husbands or brothers.

As a result of similar restrictions, women accounted for less than 10pc of registered voters. According to election commission data, nearly 1.5 million people registered to vote, including about 119,000 women, out of a population of almost 21 million.

Huda al-Jeraisy, who as the daughter of a former head of the chamber of commerce in the conservative central part of the kingdom was seen by some as imparting an official stamp of approval on women's candidature, won a seat in Riyadh.

The election was for only two thirds of seats in municipal councils that have no lawmaking or national powers.

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