Saudi women began their first ever campaigns for public office on Sunday, in a step forward for women’s rights in the conservative kingdom’s slow reform process.
More than 900 women are standing in the December 12 municipal elections, which will also mark the first time women are allowed to vote in Saudi Arabia.
Ruled by King Salman, the oil-rich state has no elected legislature but has faced intense western scrutiny over its human rights record.
The country’s first municipal elections were held in 2005, followed by another vote in 2011, but in both cases only men were allowed to participate, notes The Agence France-Presse.
“We will vote for the women even though we don’t know anything about them,” Um Fawaz, a teacher in her 20s, said in Hafr al-Batin city. “It’s enough that they are women.”
The absolute monarchy, which applies its strict interpretation of Islam, has faced widespread criticism for its lack of equal rights. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. They must also cover themselves in black from head to toe in public and require permission from male family members to travel, work or marry.
The late King Abdullah introduced the elections in 2005 and said women would participate in this year’s vote. In 2013, he also named women to the appointed Shura council, which advises the cabinet. Abdullah died in January and was succeeded by Salman, who stuck to the election timetable.