Saudi Arabia is going to the polls today (Dec. 12), electing members of 284 municipal councils across the country—and for the first time in history, women will be able to cast ballots. This is also the first municipal election in which Saudi women are eligible as candidates.
It’s a major moment for women’s rights in the conservative country, where male guardianship laws mean that women cannot even open bank accounts without permission from their husbands. The right to vote and run in municipal elections in 2015 was decided in 2011, after years of stalling from authorities who initially agreed to voting rights for women in 2005.
Although the municipal councils have limited practical influence—responsibilities include overseeing urban planning developments and regulations—the ability to participate in the council elections is “a landmark achievement for Saudi women,” said Sarah Leah Witson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division.
“Everyone is talking about women’s participation, but it’s not just about that—it’s about civic engagement,” said Saudi businesswoman Rasha Hefzi, speaking to The Guardian. Hefzi is running for a seat on her local municipal council. Her campaign slogan, which she is not allowed to deliver to the public face-to-face and so has disseminated primarily through social media, is: “We have begun and we will continue.”
Hefzi is one of 978 women who registered as candidates for these elections. It hasn’t been easy for any of the women running for seats. In some cases, current council members weren’t interested in meeting with female candidates. And the country’s polling stations, like all its public places, are gender-segregated; only 424 of the 1,263 polling stations are reserved for women.
And they can’t go to the polling stations without male chaperones. Women still aren’t allowed to obtain driver’s licenses in Saudi Arabia; in November, a handful of activists for women’s driving rights in the country were abruptly disqualified as candidates in tomorrow’s elections.