2015 is a year of firsts for women in the ultra-conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Launching their campaigns on Sunday, some 900 women running for office in Saudi Arabia's elections will be the first women in the oil-rich Sunni nation's history to do so. The December 12 municipal election also marks the first time Saudi women will be able to vote.
However, women running for office face certain campaign restrictions. While all candidates are barred from showing their pictures in public during campaigning, Al Jazeera reported that women are not allowed to hold rallies attended by men. "The female candidate can only communicate with the electorate via a TV circuit," an electoral official reportedly tweeted. "A spokesman for her can communicate with men on her behalf."
The 900-strong group of female candidates is running alongside thousands of men in a change long-awaited, following the late-King Abdullah's 2011 decision to grant women the democratic right. However, critics have described the change as having little effect, considering that they are only allowed to participate in municipal-level elections.
Two women candidates, activists Loujain Hathloul and Nassima al-Sadah, were disqualified from the election for unknown reasons on Sunday. They reportedly plan to appeal the decision.
Women's participation in this Saudi Arabia's municipal election is a small step in the country's effort to improve upon its often-criticized human rights record. Women still face everyday injustices in the kingdom that need to be addressed — including being banned from driving to being unable to travel without a male chaperone to gender segregation in many aspects of life — but the huge response in joining the election speaks volumes about their desire to play a bigger role in their society.
"We will vote for the women even though we don't know anything about them," Um Fawaz, a twentysomething teacher, said. "It's enough that they are women."
Cover image via Zou Zou / Shutterstock