Safinaz Abu al-Shamat and Jamal al-Saadi made history last Sunday by becoming the first Saudi women to register to vote.

For the first time in the kingdom's history, women will be able to vote, register as candidates and run for office in the municipal elections to be held on December 12. These will be the first polls since the 2011 decision by late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to grant women the right to vote and run for office.

Voter registration begins on August 22, but started a week earlier in Mecca and Medina, which Shamat and Saadi call home, respectively. Candidates will be able to register beginning on August 30.

The municipal council's limited responsibilities include approving annual budgets, suggesting planning regulations, and overseeing urban and development projects.

An estimated 70 women are planning to register as candidates, and an additional 80 as campaign managers, according to local media. Neither male nor female candidates will be allowed to use pictures of themselves in campaign advertising, and on election day, there will be separate polling centres for men and women.

Women's rights activists had long fought for the right to vote in the oil-rich Gulf kingdom, whose legal code applies a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam that bans females from driving and travelling without the consent of a male guardian.

Female participation in December's elections "is an important step towards creating greater inclusion within society", said Nouf al-Sadiq, a Saudi citizen and graduate student in Middle East studies at George Washington University. "It is also a vital step towards moderation, and for reaching a better understanding of our own society."

Muna Abusulayman, an influential Saudi who has worked in media, education and philanthropy entrepreneurship, was also optimistic, predicting that if women are elected to office, they "will bring a female point of view, demanding certain amendments to laws that are unfavourable towards women".

Fawzia Abu Khalid, a political sociologist at King Saud University, sees the decision to allow female political participation as reflecting a broader change in view in Saudi Arabia regarding women's rights.

"I think there is the realisation from different groups, including the conservative groups, that what happened in the past, where their voice was the only representative in society, would no longer continue," she said.

Courtesy: Aljazeera