Saudi Arabia has elected its first female local councillors in a historic step for a country where women are banned from driving and face routine discrimination. Results from Saturday’s municipal council elections indicated there were about 17 female winners. These included four in Jeddah, one near Mecca – home to Islam’s holiest site – and others in Tabuk, Ahsaa and Qatif. Several more, reported by al-Sabq online newspaper, were expected to be confirmed later. Rasha Hefzi, a prominent businesswoman who won a seat in Jeddah, thanked all those who supported her campaign and trusted her, pledging: “What we have started, we will continue.” Hefzi and other candidates used social media to contact voters because of restrictions on women meeting men and bans on both sexes using photographs.
The turnout, estimate to be about 25%, was low, as was registration. Only 1.32 million men and 130,000 women out of a population of 20 million voted – figures that highlight the unfamiliarity of the democratic process of election in the absolute monarchy.
But there was surprise at the number of women who took seats. “I think it’s great that several women won in different regions of Saudi Arabia,” said writer Maha Akeel. “It shows how much Saudi society has progressed on the issue of not only accepting, but actually supporting women in public office, and this could mean that more change is to come. I’m surprised. We expected maybe one or two women would win.”