RIYADH: At least 14 women won municipal council seats in Saudi Arabia’s first ever election open to female voters and candidates, officials said Sunday, far exceeding expectations in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
“Even if it was only one woman, we’re really proud of that. Honestly, we weren’t expecting anyone to win,” said Sahar Hassan Nasief, a women’s rights activist in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.
But with 2,106 seats up for election in Saturday’s polls, the 14 women will comprise less than one percent of Saudi Arabia’s elected council membership.
“We need more than nine,” said Aljazi al-Hossaini, who was defeated in Diriyah on the edge of Riyadh, where three women won seats, according to Saudi news channel Al-Ekhbaria.
She hoped women would be also included among the one third of council seats, which are appointed by the municipal affairs ministry.
A teacher from the small bedouin town of Mudrika outside the holy city of Mecca was the first woman to be declared a winner.
“My whole life has been a struggle,” Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi told AFP.
Khadra al-Mubarak in the Gulf coast city of Qatif confirmed to AFP that she was also among the victors.
“I will be in contact with society, especially women, to deliver their voices and demands to the council. I promise I will represent her by all means,” said Mubarak, one of two women elected in the Eastern region.
Hanouf bint Mufrih bin Ayid al-Hazmi won in the northwestern region of Jawf, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said, adding that neighboring Tabuk elected two women.
In the east, Sanna Abdel Latif Hamam and Maasooma Abdel Mohsen al-Rida were elected in Ihsa province, SPA said.
Winners came from the south as well, with one woman elected in Jazan region, while two others including Lama al-Suleiman will join councils in Jeddah, the kingdom’s second city, local election officials cited by SPA said.
The duties of municipal councils are limited to local affairs including streets, public gardens and garbage collection.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with some of the world’s tightest restrictions on women, including a ban on driving.
It was the last country to allow only men to vote, and polling stations were segregated during the ballot.
More than 900 women were among the 6,440 candidates standing for seats on 284 councils.
They had to overcome a number of obstacles to participate in the landmark poll.
Female candidates could not meet face-to-face with male voters during campaigning, while neither men nor women could publish their pictures.
Women voters said registration was hindered by factors including bureaucratic obstacles and a lack of transportation.
As a result, women accounted for less than 10 percent of registered voters.
According to election commission data, nearly 1.5 million people aged 18 and above signed up for the polls.
This included about 119,000 women, out of a total native Saudi population of almost 21 million.