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Saudi Arabia Elects Women to Local Government for the First Time

Saudi Arabia Elects Women to Local Government for the First Time

By Jillian Kramer

In Saudi Arabia's first-ever municipal election to allow female participation, at least 17 women — and possibly as many as 20 — were elected to local office, according to various media reports.

Saturday's groundbreaking election was the first to allow women to both run and vote in a country that still prohibits its female residents from driving. In Saudi Arabia, women are also legally dependent on male relatives who must approve many major life decisions.

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Women won the seat of local councilor in several districts, including four seats in Jeddah, one near Mecca — home to Islam's holiest site — and several others in Tabuk, Ahsaa, Riyadh, Jawf, and Qatif. One Jeddah winner, Rasha Hefzi, ran on the campaign slogan: "We have begun and we will continue."

The business woman campaigned on social media to draw voters to the polls — as a woman, Hefzi was also forced to speak behind a partition at public events, and was barred from appearing on TV. Both men and women were banned from using photographs of themselves in campaign materials.

In total, 978 women registered as candidates for the 284 municipal councils in the country. However, several candidates were disqualified when they spoke in favor of allowing women to drive.

One banned candidate, Nassima al-Sada, said in an interview, "We need to change the way people think about women. If we want to improve things in this country we need men and women at all levels of decision-making."

She continued, "Many people think elections are just for show because the government wants to demonstrate that there are reforms here. It doesn't matter what the government wants. What matters is how I can use this to change things. Globalization and social media mean the whole world is connected. Change will happen. The only question is how long it will take."

As municipal councilors, the female victors will be able to advise local government and oversee budgets. Previously, women have held roles in the country's Shura — consultative — council, as well as senior positions in business and academia.

How does this election make you feel about your own right to vote, and our country's upcoming elections?

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Photo Credit: Getty Images