RIYADH: Saudi electoral workers prepare to count ballots after the country’s municipal elections in the capital late Saturday. (Inset) Lama Al- Sulaiman won from Jeddah. — AP/AFP
RIYADH: Saudi electoral workers prepare to count ballots after the country’s municipal elections in the capital late Saturday. (Inset) Lama Al- Sulaiman won from Jeddah. — AP/AFP

RIYADH: At least 19 women won municipal council seats in Saudi Arabia’s first ever election open to female voters and candidates, officials said yesterday, in a milestone for the ultra-conservative Muslim 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, the 19 women would comprise less than one percent of Saudi Arabia’s elected council membership. “We need more,” 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 included among the one third of council seats which are appointed by the municipal affairs ministry.

Sabq.org, a news website affiliated with the kingdom’s interior ministry, reported that a total of 10 women had been elected in various parts of the country. In the first announcement of a woman winner, Salma bint Hizab Al-Oteibi was elected in the holy city of Makkah, the official SPA news agency reported. Huda Al-Jeraisy, who as the daughter of a former head of the chamber of commerce in the conservative central part of the kingdom was seen by some Saudis as imparting an official stamp of approval on women’s candidature, won a seat in Riyadh. Lama bint Abdulaziz Al-Sulaiman, Rasha Hafza, Sana Abdulatif Abdulwahab Al-Hamam and Massoumeh Al-Reda won seats in Jeddah. In northern Saudi Arabia, Hanouf bint Mufreh bin Ayad Al-Hazimi won a seat in Al-Jawf, Mina Salman Saeed Al-Omairi and Fadhila Afnan Muslim Al-Attawi both won seats in the Northern Borders province.

Two women won seats in Al-Ahsa in Eastern Province, but their names were not immediately released. Elsewhere in the province, Khadra Al-Mubarak won a seat in Qatif district. In the southern Jazan province, Aisha bint Hamoud Ali Bakri won a seat. In Qassim, traditionally the most conservative part of the country, two women were elected but their names were not immediately released. Another was elected in Al-Babtain district.

The mayor of Makkah, Osama Al-Bar, told AP yesterday that Oteibi won in a village called Madrakah, about 150 km north of the city which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba to which Muslims around the world pray. Many women candidates ran on platforms that promised more nurseries to offer longer daycare hours for working mothers, the creation of youth centers with sports and cultural activities, improved roads, better garbage collection and overall greener cities.

In October, the Saudi Gazette reported that harsh road conditions and long distances to the nearest hospital had forced some women in the village of Madrakah, where Oteibi was elected, to give birth in cars. The local newspaper reported that the closest hospital and the nearest university were in Makkah, prompting some students to forgo attending classes. The article said residents were also frustrated with the lack of parks in the village. It is precisely these kinds of community issues that female candidates hope to address once elected to the municipal councils.

The duties of municipal councils are limited to local affairs including responsibility for streets, public gardens and garbage collection. The councils do not have legislative powers, but advise authorities and help oversee local budgets. 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 running 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.

At least two parts of the country reported a female turnout of around 80 percent, according to official data. In the mountainous Baha region, female turnout was around 82 percent while about half the registered male voters cast ballots, data showed. In neighboring Asir, turnout was about 79 percent for women and 52 percent for men. Female candidates expressed pride in running, even if they didn’t think they would win, while women voters said they were happy at finally being able to do something they had only seen on television or in movies.

Nassima Al-Sadah, an activist in the eastern city of Qatif, said the voting process itself took place relatively smoothly, unlike the registration. Many female candidates used social media to campaign, but a handful of others, including women’s rights activists, were disqualified from the process. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia boasts modern infrastructure of highways, skyscrapers and ever-more shopping malls. But women still require permission from male family members to travel, work or marry.

Ruled by the Al-Saud family of King Salman, Saudi Arabia has no elected legislature and faces intense Western scrutiny of its rights record. A slow expansion of women’s rights began under Salman’s predecessor Abdullah who announced four years ago that women would take part in the 2015 municipal elections. Men have voted since 2005 in the local polls.

In Jeddah, three generations of women from the same family cast ballots for the first time. The oldest woman in the family was 94 year-old Naela Mohammad Nasief. Her daughter, Sahar Hassan Nasief, said the experience marked “the beginning” of greater rights for women in Saudi Arabia, who are not allowed to drive and are governed by laws that give men the ultimate say over aspects of their lives like marriage, travel and higher education. “I walked in and said ‘I’ve have never seen this before. Only in the movies’,” the daughter said, referring to the ballot box. “It was a thrilling experience.” – Agencies