RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Polling stations have closed, ending a historic day in which women for the first time took part in Saudi Arabia’s elections, marking another step at reforms in a country that still imposes strict rules such as ban on women driving.
The municipal council races across the kingdom also included the first female candidates — more than 950 in total — seen as pioneers by many but also denounced by some hard-line Islamists as unfit for a public role.
The polls closed just before sunset and evening prayers. Full results are expected Sunday.
Despite the potential significance of the elections, only a relative fraction of Saudis registered to cast ballots. But even the yawn does not detract from the potential significance of the vote.
At one of the women-only polling stations in Riyadh, a trickle of voters passed through the gates — with some stopping to take photos of he moment or calling their friends.
“I about to do it,” 30-year-old government worker Jawaher al-Rawili said into her phone. “It’s so exciting.”
“This is a day for all Saudi women if they voted or not,” said Latifa al-Bazei, 53. “We are gaining a right that was kept from half the country for too long.”
The election is seen as a modest — but important — step in opening space for a greater public voice for Saudi women despite a host of other limitations, including the world’s only ban on women driving.
“This could definitely open the door for more reforms,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh. “That’s a big thing, an important moment. But there’s also an indifference at the same time.”
Two-thirds of the council seats around the county will be decided in the election. The rest will be appointed based on needed expertise such as degrees in engineering or traffic management. This opens room for Saudi leaders to add more women despite the election outcome.
“We expect, we hope, there will be women winners,” said Hamad Saad al-Omar, a spokesman for the government ministry overseeing the elections. “If they lose, it’s possible they could be appointed depending on the needs.”
Some Saudis, however, say they are too jaded to vote, calling the councils effectively powerless in a country where all decisions must pass scrutiny by the ruling family. Others were not even aware of the election until the period for voter registration had passed, blaming officials for a slow-footed and disjointed effort to remind the nation of the once-every-four-years balloting.
Nearly 1.5 million voters are on the lists to cast ballots — including about 130,000 women. That’s just a sliver, however, of the millions more potential voters over age 18.
In the races, women are slightly better represented: about 950 out of nearly 7,000 candidates. With no pre-vote polling, it’s impossible to predict how many of the 3,100 seats throughout the kingdom could go to women.
Voting is scheduled to end at 5 p.m. (9 a.m. EST), and results are expected Sunday.
“We’re just now finding out now that women could vote,” said Ala al-Bani, 18. Her twin, Abrar, nodded in agreement. “We don’t really follow the news, but you would think the government would have made sure everyone knew.”
Not to mention the fact that their father’s public relations company helped organize outreach before the last men-only municipal election, in 2011.
“We’re happy even though we’re not taking part,” said Ala, who graduates from high school next year and plans to study medicine. “My hope is that it can make some real changes.”
Her list of such changes includes giving women a shot at more high-level company jobs and opening up almost exclusively male careers such as engineering. And driving?
“Well, yes, maybe that,” she added.
Such is the low public expectation for any rapid changes despite the election, which was set in motion by the late King Abdullah as part of reforms that included adding women to the Shura Council that advises the kingdom’s rulers.
The driving ban has gathered most of the world’s attention — a policy that, at times, literally requires women to take a back seat. But Saudi women face additional restrictions with the potential for disruption, such as needing a male guardian’s permission to travel abroad, open a bank account or lease property.
The municipal councils have no say in any of this. They act mostly like a public works department, focusing on roads, trash and other issues of daily life.
In Hafar al-Batin, near the border with Kuwait, Badriah al-Afit plans to vote. It’s for a family friend — a man — who would take offense if Afit and her clan didn’t take part in the polling. The concept of “wasta” — roughly, Arabic for “who you know” — is always a factor in Saudi life, said Afit, a 32-year-old health-care worker.
Sultana al-Sultan, a 25-year-old woman seeking work in corporate management, is registered in the Riyadh suburb of Quwaiyah and will probably vote for one of the female candidates. The run-up to the polling has inspired her in other ways, and she’s mulling over running in the next elections in 2019.
“My father would back me. So would my brothers,” she said. “They see nothing wrong with a woman trying to do something.”
Some hard-line clerics have pushed a very different message, decrying the election as a Western cultural invasion and a betrayal of Saudi Arabia’s rigid brand of Islam known as Wahhabism.
“They see it as another insult to their status,” said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf affairs at Britain’s Durham University.
But the elections would never have taken place without clearance from the religious establishment, which gives the Saudi royal court legitimacy to rule over Islam’s holiest sites.
“It comes down to a cost-benefit analysis,” said Davidson. “They realize there are worse consequences if they stand still completely on women’s issues.”
In some ways, the authorities are playing catch-up. Saudi women already account for the majority of university students in the country, and many increasingly test the boundaries of male-centric traditions.
Few Saudi men have raised objections about the new step for women.
“Look, there is really no role that a woman cannot do. Even if people don’t say it, they know it,” said Badr Abdulhayer, 28, an insurance executive who did not register to vote. “This election is good. It’s another equalizer.”