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Saudi women voting for first time in landmark election

Published 12/12/2015

A Saudi man casts his vote at a polling centre in Riyadh (AP)
A Saudi man casts his vote at a polling centre in Riyadh (AP)

Saudi women are heading to polling stations across the kingdom, both as voters and candidates for the first time in a landmark election.

More than 5,000 men and around 980 women are running as candidates for local municipal council seats, while 130,000 women have registered to vote compared to 1.35 million men.

The election, which does not have quotas for females, is widely seen as a small but significant opening for women to play a more equal role in Saudi society.

Municipal councils are the only government body in which Saudi citizens can elect their representatives. It is the third time in recent decades that Saudi men have been allowed to vote.

In line with Saudi Arabia's gender segregation rules, men and women are casting ballots at separate polling stations.

Not many women are expected to win seats because of the sheer number of male candidates and because many had no previous experience of running campaigns.

Many women also said they could not afford the high cost of running a public campaign.

Hatoon Al-Fassi, of the Saudi Baladi Initiative that worked closely with women to raise voter awareness and increase female participation in the election, said: "I don't consider winning to be the ultimate goal... but it is the right of being a citizen that I concentrate on and I consider this a turning point.

"We are looking at it as an opportunity to exercise our right and to push for more."

But female candidates have to contend with a deep societal belief among many Saudi voters that women do not belong in public life.

Abdullah Al-Maiteb made his way into a polling station in the capital Riyadh on Saturday morning, expressing a widely held sentiment about why women shouldn't be on the ballot.

"Her role is not in such places. Her role is at home managing the house and raising a new generation," he said.

"If we allow her out of the house to do such business, who is going to take care of my sons?"

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