Saudi suffragettes: Women register to vote for the first time in Saudi Arabia

Women distribute leaflets to raise awareness among citizens to participate in the upcoming municipal elections on August 21 in Al Dammam, Saudi, Arabia.

Story highlights

  • For the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia, women can begin registering to vote this week
  • Women will be able to vote and run in elections
  • Critics have described the change as anywhere from modest to inconsequential

(CNN)For the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia, women can begin registering to vote this week.

According to local media, women will be able to vote and run in elections held in December of this year, marking a step forward for proponents of women's rights in a country that has received heavy criticism for its treatment of women.
    "This is something new to women," an unidentified woman told al Ekhbariya, Saudi state television. "I am pretty sure women will have different opinions and thoughts. I am very happy."
    Official voter registration begins August 22, and candidate registration begins on August 30, according to a Saudi government website. Both days will mark firsts for women in Saudi Arabia gearing up to participate in elections in December. Women will only participate in elections at the municipal level.
    The December election will be the first opportunity for women to vote since a 2011 order by the now deceased King Abdullah that granted women some opportunities for political participation. According to the State Department, Abdullah issued a royal decree in 2013 mandating the Consultative Council, a royally appointed body that advises the King, be at least 20% women.
    Critics have described the change as anywhere from modest to inconsequential.
    "While it's a sign of progress, allowing women to stand and vote in elections -- and then only municipal elections -- is not enough to secure women's full integration into Saudi public life," wrote Adam Coogle for Human Rights Watch.
    Despite the December elections, the country remains a monarchy ruled by the Saud family. According to the State Department, municipal elections in Saudi Arabia filled half the seats in municipal councils, with King Abdullah selecting the other half of municipal officials.
    Since the 1930s, the official religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been a strict Salafi interpretation of Sunni Islam. Based on this interpretation of the religion, Saudi Arabia employs an informally established guardianship system over women.
    The system does not afford women many freedoms. Saudi women are not, for example, allowed to drive. Nor can they travel or go to school without a male guardian.
    In a video from Saudi state television, women could be seen assisting with preparations for voter registration.
    Given Saudi Arabia's record with women's rights, some see the partial extension of suffrage to women as a sign that women will have an expanded role in Saudi civil society.
    "This is just a small part of women's rights, participating in the municipal elections, and possibly women can perform even better than men," another woman said to al Ekhbariya.
    Saudi Arabia's move could also bring the country closer to one of its strongest allies, the United States, which has condemned Saudi Arabia's treatment of women for years in various reports. A constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote in the United States was ratified 95 years ago.