Saudi Elections Include Women for First Time

14 December, 2015

At least 17 women have won seats on city councils in Saudi Arabia in historic elections.

The election on Saturday was the first open to women voters and candidates in the kingdom's history.

Elections of any kind are rare in Saudi Arabia. This was only the third time people were able to vote for representatives on city councils.

A Saudi woman casts her ballot at a polling center during municipal elections in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 12, 2015.
A Saudi woman casts her ballot at a polling center during municipal elections in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 12, 2015.

In 2011, the kingdom's ruler, King Abdullah, said women would be able to vote. Abdullah died in January. He was replaced by King Salman.

On Sunday, the U.S. State Department called the elections historic. It said "the participation of women represents an important step forward in Saudi Arabia toward a more inclusive electoral process that will ensure all citizens are represented in a government accountable to all Saudi citizens."

Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi won a council seat in Madrakah, a city about 150 kilometers north of Mecca. She defeated seven men and two women for the position.

There were 6,000 candidates for 2,000 positions open, reported Human Rights Watch. Nine hundred of those candidates were women.

It said distant registration centers made it difficult for some women to register. Also, many women in Saudi Arabia do not have identification documents. Those documents are needed to register and vote.

Still, Saudi officials said about 130,000 women registered to vote. That is about 10 percent of the number of men who are registered.

Sarah Leah Whitson is the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. She noted that it is difficult for "women to participate and build on this progress to create momentum for further women's rights reforms" in Saudi Arabia. She said that is because of the continuing political and cultural separation of women and men in the country.

I'm Mario Ritter.

This story was published on Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted it for Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

participation - n. involvement

accountable – adj. required to explain actions or decisions to someone (usually + to)

momentum – n. the strength or force that allows something to continue or to grow stronger or faster as time passes