Saudi Arabia’s Women Have Right To Vote In 2015 Elections For The First Time, But A Shockingly Low Number May Head To The Polls

Women vote in Saudi Arabia election

Only a few times in Saudi Arabia’s history has the country found itself swept up in the wave of an election. After the 1960s, it was nearly 40 years before the next round was held in 2005, and, due to delays, only one other election, in 2011, has come to pass since then.

The rarity of the event will no doubt make the 2015 Saudi Arabian municipal elections closely watched within the country and abroad, but a perhaps even more monumental aspect stands to define this year’s race — Saudi Arabian women will be able to mark their choices at the voting booth for the first time.

There is a disconnect, however, between the legality of women voting in Saudi Arabia’s election and how many will actually participate in democracy for the first time. As of the end of August, only 16 women in the country were registered to vote. That may be partially due to limited mobility for women in the country: females are not allowed to drive or appear in public unaccompanied by a male relative, reported Jerusalem Post. That’s in addition to other odd limitations, like women being barred from entering cemeteries, reported Vanity Fair.

Although the decision did not stand for the elections that took place that year, women have actually been granted the right to vote since 2011. The late King Abdullah decreed that women in Saudi Arabia would be given the right to vote and also to run in municipal elections. Now, around 70 are running, and 80 are leading campaigns. History professor and women’s suffrage advocate Hatoon al-Fassi told theNew York Times that Abdullah’s move was largely based on growing international pressure for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

“There is the element of the Arab Spring, there is the element of the strength of Saudi social media, and there is the element of Saudi women themselves, who are not silent. Plus, the fact that the issue of women has turned Saudi Arabia into an international joke is another thing that brought the decision now.”

Of course, Saudi Arabia’s women still have almost four months before elections happen in December. In that time, Middle Eastern feminists hope that at least a few thousand of the more than 11 million women living in Saudi Arabia will register to vote. Still, being fully prepared to make their voices heard is only half the battle: widespread opposition to women voting in the 2015 elections in Saudi Arabia is expected.

[Image via Mario Tama / Getty Images]