Riyadh (AsiaNews / Agencies) - This morning the voting process started in Saudi Arabia, for municipal elections of historic significance: for the first time, women are both candidates and can vote. In the only nation in the world where women are not allowed to drive, and in which there is a strict observance of Islamic law (Sharia), the ability to vote is a small sign of change in the battle for equality between the sexes. At today's election there were 978 candidates among women, compared with 5,938 men.
During the election campaign, the women representatives were ordered to speak behind a partition – there is a strict separation of the sexes in the kingdom - during public appearances or to be represented by a man. Even during voting a division between the sexes will apply, with separate polling stations for males and females.
According to official data, about 130 thousand women have registered to vote; a figure still far fewer than men, whose number is around to 1.35 million. There are no "quotas" within the various municipalities, which are the only government agency of the realm to which citizens can elect their own representatives.
Interviewed by the BBC Salma al-Rashed, the first woman to have registered for the vote, says she feels "very good". "Change is a big word - she adds - but the elections are a step in the right direction so that we too can be represented."
Moreover, the vote in itself represents a historic moment for the Saudi nation. Today is the third time in its history that the Arab country has been called to the polls and for 40 years (between 1965 and 2005) elections have never been held. The first results are expected in the late afternoon.
Saudi Arabia enforces a strict Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, which places many restrictions on women’s activities and social rights. For instance, women still cannot drive a car, leave home or the country without a male relative, or receive medical treatment without permission.
In 2011, the late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz gave women the right to elect their representatives and run for office (in future municipal elections in 2015). This came after a protest on social media asking for women the right to vote.
The king also authorised women to stay at hotels without a letter from a male guardian, making it easier for women to travel on business. He appointed the first female deputy minister, opened the first coeducational university and eliminated men from women’s underwear and perfume shops.
His successor, King Salman, who took over in January, has not rolled back the changes.