More than 900 women are campaigning for public office in Saudi Arabia — a first in the kingdom’s history.The December 12 municipal election will be the first opportunity for Saudi women to vote or run for office since a 2011 order by the now deceased King Abdullah that granted women some opportunities for political participation in the ultra-conservative Sunni kingdom.
Critics have described the change as anywhere from modest to inconsequential. Women will only participate in elections at the municipal level. At least two women’s rights activists announced on Twitter that they had been disqualified as candidates.
Loujain Hathloul, who was arrested last year for defying a ban on women drivers, and Nasema al-Sada, said their names had been left off the final candidates list, and that they plan to appeal.
Just three months ago, Saudi women were allowed to register to vote for the first time. Despite the elections, the country remains an absolute monarchy ruled by the Saud family, which governs according to a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam.
It employs an informally established guardianship system over women which affords them few freedoms. Saudi women are forbidden to drive, and are not allowed to travel or go to school without a male guardian.
According to the U.S. State Department, municipal elections in Saudi Arabia fill half the seats in municipal councils, with the king selecting the other half.
The late King Abdullah also issued a royal decree in 2013 mandating the Consultative Council, a royally appointed body that advises the King, be at least 20% women, the State Department says.