Saudi Women Voted - And Won - For The First Time In Landmark Elections

Amna Shoaib
Women cast their vote for the first time in Saudi Arabia, but what does this symbolic gesture actually mean in the ultra-conservative kingdom?

Saudi Women Vote

In a country where women are not allowed to drive or even leave their homes without the permission of a male guardian, at least four women reportedly won seats in the first-ever elections open to female voters and candidates.

Saudi Arabia observed its third elections on Saturday, and in a surprising turnout, two female candidates were elected to Ihsaa municipal council seats while one won a seat in Taoubok and one in the the heart of the Holy Kingdom — Mecca.

The world media broadcasted a rare scene in Saudi Arabia this weekend as a sparse crowd in flowing burkas milled about the polling stations, taking selfies and making victory signs at the camera.

However, despite being dubbed a historic day, the election did not attract hordes of women for their first participation in democracy. In fact, the turnout was a meager 25 percent, according to generous estimates.

But a large turnout was not something that activists, who have championed this cause for decades, were aiming for. The government has perpetuated an invisibility of women from public life, and there is little awareness among women regarding their meager democratic rights.

So even if women did not step out to cast their vote, these elections were a step toward providing women greater rights and greater influence.

Recommended: This Is Why The Female Saudi Political Candidates Matter

women saudia arabia

Moreover, Saudi women are not naive enough to believe that they will encounter landmark changes in the governmental system with this.

Only about 900 women ran in an election with nearly 6,000 male candidates. Even after being elected, the councilors will only be in charge of the daily workings of their constituency, hygiene and garbage collection. But even with this little influence, women voters believe that they will have a larger voice in how things are run in their neighborhoods.

"As a woman, I need some services, some needs in my neighborhood, like nurseries. I need social centers for youth and retirement, like this. So maybe the woman can concentrate more than the man on those needs,” Saudi woman Fahda al-Rwali told Al-Jazeera.

With this move, Saudi Arabia has become the last country to allow its women to vote. But the real question is, will it be able to sustain this democratic process?