Women In Saudi Arabia Got To Vote For The First Time, But Discriminatory Obstacles Are Keeping The Turnout Low

In a historic move toward equality, women in Saudi Arabia voted in municipal elections for the first time on Saturday. The election also marked the first time that women in Saudi Arabia were eligible to run for office, with nearly 980 female candidates on the ballot, according to CNN. But full equality for Saudi Arabian women still remains out of reach, as barriers to registration and the voting booths persist throughout the heavily conservative nation.

The government first proposed giving women the right to vote a decade ago. King Abdullah, who has since died, issued a decree in 2011 that women would be able to participate in elections and run as candidates.

On Saturday, thousands of Saudi Arabian women turned out to vote for their local leaders. The number of women eligible to participate in these elections, however, is just a fraction of the population; only 130,000 Saudi Arabian women were registered to vote, compared to more than 1.3 million men.

“Saudi women have faced significant obstacles in their fight for their right to vote and run in the municipal council elections, but their participation on December 12 will send a strong signal to Saudi society that women are continuing the long march toward greater participation in public life," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

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That could be partially do to the fact that Saudi Arabian women were running into many of the same barriers that impede voting access in America. According to Human Rights Watch, the Saudi Arabian government has kept certain discriminatory practices in place, including limiting access to government-issued ID cards and passports, and forcing women to prove proof of residence. Women in Saudi Arabia are under guardianship of a male relative, and typically don't have property or legal documents in their name.

Many Saudi Arabian women are barred by their male guardians from even receiving a photo ID card. One woman told Human Rights Watch, "If the man doesn’t want her to participate, he ... can deny giving her all those documents." And that's one of the leading reasons why just 10 percent of Saudi Arabian women are currently registered to vote.

Women in Saudi Arabia are also forbidden from driving, making getting to the polls difficult for those who don't live near a voting center. The nation's laws also prevent women from leaving the house without a male guardian, essentially leaving the right to vote in a male's hand despite the new decree.

It remains to be seen if opening the vote to women will enact progress in Saudi Arabia. BBC News reported that female candidates running for municipal positions were forced to speak behind partitions, and that the campaigns were sex-segregated — making women both invisible and silent.

In many ways, Saturday's historic vote is simply symbolic for Saudi Arabian women, who are experiencing agency for the first time. "I am not really worried about the number, or to have any women winning," one woman told BBC News. "The fact that we have gone through this exercise is what really matters."