Women in Saudi Arabia took part in the country’s elections — as both voters and candidates — for the first time ever on Saturday. Of the 130,000 Saudi women who had registered to vote, an impressive 82 percent showed up at polling stations, and initial results indicate that at least 19 female candidates have been elected from the roughly 980 who had run for municipal council seats, according to the Associated Press. In addition, since the elections only fill two-thirds of the country’s 3,000 or so council seats, it’s possible that more women may later be appointed to the remaining seats — which are awarded based on needed expertise. Municipal councils are the only part of the Saudi government that are filled democratically, and the local councils mainly oversee community-level issues.
The opening of elections to women is considered a small but important step in reforming the country’s severe inequality for women, a change that was instituted by the county’s late ruler, King Abdullah, who also added women to an important advisory council in the government. Saudi Arabia is strictly segregated by gender, and women in the kingdom are not allowed to drive and need the official permission of a male guardian, whether a family member or husband, to obtain higher education or travel abroad, among many other things.
Some 1.35 million Saudi men were registered to vote in the elections (but only 44 percent showed up on Saturday) and male candidates outnumbered female candidates six-to-one. Saudi women also had to cast their votes at separate polling stations from men, and female candidates were not allowed to speak directly with male voters, needing either to address them through a partition using a projector and microphone, or to be represented by male surrogate campaigners.
This post has been updated to reflect to initial results of the election.