Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah says women will be allowed to run in council elections.

Story highlights

Women will be allowed to take part in nominating candidates in elections, the king says

"Women's voices will be heard finally," an activist says

Thurday's elections will be only the second in nearly 50 years

CNN  — 

The king of Saudi Arabia has opened the door to greater participation by women in future municipal elections.

In an address on Saudi state TV, King Abdullah said women will be allowed to nominate candidates for the next set of municipal elections. Although he did not use the word “vote,” allowing women to take part in the nomination process would amount to voting within Saudi Arabia’s system.

The country is holding municipal elections Thursday for the only the second time in nearly 50 years. The changes the king announced would go into effect for the next set of elections – and it is unclear when those might take place.

Saudi women’s rights activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider called the announcement “great news.”

“Women’s voices will be heard finally,” she said. “Now it’s time to remove other barriers like not allowing women to drive cars and not being able to function and live a normal life without a male guardian.”

The White House also hailed the announcement.

“We welcome Saudi King Abdullah’s announcement today that women will serve as full members of the Shura Council in the next session, and will have the right to participate in future elections,” it said in a statement. “These reforms recognize the significant contributions women in Saudi Arabia make to their society and will offer them new ways to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and communities.” The move, according to the White House, is “an important step forward in expanding the rights of women in Saudi Arabia.”

King Abdullah’s announcement followed increasing pressure on Saudi Arabia to allow women to vote.

“Since we reject to marginalize the role of women in the Saudi society, in every field of works, according to the (Islamic) Sharia guidelines, and after consultations with many of our scholars, especially those in the senior scholars council, and others, who have expressed the preference for this orientation, and supported this trend, we have decided the following,” the king said, according to an English translation of his remarks released by the Saudi government.

First, he announced, women will be allowed to participate in the Shura council, the Consultative Council appointed by the king.

The U.S. State Department says there are already some women on the 150-member Consultative Council. In 2010, “the number of female advisers on the Consultative Council increased from 10 to 13,” the U.S. State Department said in its human rights report on Saudi Arabia, citing “local sources.”

The king also announced Sunday that, “As of the next session, women will have the right to nominate themselves for membership of Municipal Councils, and also have the right to participate in the nomination of candidates with the Islamic guidelines.”

Elections for those councils were held in 2005 for the first time since 1963. Only men were eligible to vote, the U.S. State Department says.

Another set of elections was scheduled for 2009 but was delayed repeatedly – ultimately being scheduled for this week.

Earlier this year, Saudi women activists wrote the government requesting that women be allowed to vote and be candidates in the municipal elections, according to the U.S. Library of Congress.

Saudi Arabia’s “Minister of Municipality and Rural Affairs declared that Saudi women will not be able to either run or vote in this election,” the Library of Congress reported on its blog. “According to news reports, the Minister stated that the ban on women’s participation is due to the lack of segregated voting facilities.”

When election centers opened in April for voters to register, some groups of women turned up and were turned away. It was one of the first public acts of the “Saudi Women Revolution,” a movement set up to campaign for the end of Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory laws.

In June, a number of Saudi women took to the streets – in cars – to demand the right for women to drive and travel freely in the country.

There are no specific traffic laws that make it illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia. However, religious edicts are often interpreted as a prohibition of female drivers. Such edicts also prevent women from opening bank accounts, obtaining passports or even going to school without the presence of a male guardian.

Authorities stopped Manal al Sharif, 32, for driving a car May 21 and detained her the next day. She said she was forced to sign a form promising not to drive again and spent a week in jail. Her case became a rallying cry for women activists.

CNN’s Mohammed Jamjoom and Josh Levs contributed to this report.