By Siraj Wahab
Hundreds of Saudi men and women streamed into polling booths on Saturday to cast their votes in the much-publicized municipal elections.
There was a festive atmosphere in many districts as voting began at 8 a.m. What started as a trickle in the morning became a torrent after 1 p.m. By the time the polls closed at 5 p.m., thousands had voted in what has been described as a “historic” event because of the participation of Saudi women in an election for the first time.
“Everything went according to plan and there were no complaints from any polling center,” said an election commission official at one of Jeddah’s 109 voting places. For a full Kingdom-wide update, he advised Arab News to wait for Election Commission chief Judea Al-Qahtani’s press conference.
While there was no obvious indication of feelings on the faces of Saudi men, Saudi women, on the other hand, could barely hide their excitement. As soon as they got to the polling center, many took selfies and posted them on their social media accounts.
The one complaint that some women made was that they were not allowed to take photos inside the polling booths. That was not the case, however, at all polling booths.
Prominent historian Dr. Hatoon Al-Fassi was not allowed to take her photo as she cast her vote. “I was told that this was against the election law,” she told Arab News. “But some of my acquaintances were able to take photos in other centers. We have had to deal with this lack of consistency all the time during these elections,” she said.
Al-Fassi took a selfie while she smiled broadly outside the polling booth and then posted it on her Twitter account, stating: “VOTED.” She said she voted for Fouzia Hijab Al-Harbi.
Maha Akeel, the director of communications at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), was among the lucky ones. She got a photo of herself dropping her ballot in the box at Polling Center No. 976 in Jeddah’s Al-Zahra district. She instantly posted the photo on her Twitter account, captioning it: “I exercised my right to vote on a historic day for Saudi women.”
Akeel voted for Rasha Hefzi, the young woman candidate whose creative campaigning and active social work have been widely applauded by men and women in Jeddah. “Regardless of the outcome, women were big winners today,” she said. “We are hopeful of more positive changes in the future.”
Some women, such as Salma Al-Rashid, brought their children to the polling centers to witness history in the making.
“Yes, I took my children to witness as I cast my vote in the historic municipal elections,” she wrote on her Twitter handle @salma_alrashid, along with a group photo of her three smiling and clearly delighted children.
Among the early voters was Amal Faisal. “I feel empowered and proud,” she said. “I voted for a lovely lady who represents my beliefs and has so much to offer.”
She described her feeling as amazing. “I just voted for the first time in my life. It feels wonderful to know that I have a voice and it matters,” she said.
What came as a surprise was the large number of older Saudi women at the polling centers. “I was frankly, but very pleasantly, surprised to see women in their 50s and 60s queueing up to vote,” said Akeel. “I thought only young women were excited about these elections.”
One of the elderly women, whom Akeel spoke to, said: “We have been waiting for this day for a long time, and very early on, we went through all the cumbersome procedures to get ourselves registered as voters.”
Among those elderly women was Sameera Al-Dakheel, the 65-year-old mother of Al-Fassi, from the holy city of Makkah.
“My mother learned about the candidacy and program of Dr. Wafa Masdar from her district and she voted for her,” Al-Fassi told Arab News.
Saudi writer Abdullah Al-Alami said it was a good sign that a large number of Saudis voted. “Even though it is a small percentage of the total population, it is still a major step forward.”
Al-Alami said women’s participation in the municipal elections, both as candidates and voters, was one of the three most significant decisions in recent times. “The other two were women’s appointment to the Shoura Council and the amendment to nine articles of the Saudi Civil Law.”
The amendments to the Civil Law, granting women more rights, have been discussed and approved by the Shoura Council and are expected to be approved soon by the Council of Ministers. “All these indicates that we are moving forward in the right direction,” said Al-Alami.
According to Al-Alami, the next step will be to allow women the freedom to do five things without the need to have permission from male guardians — transportation, travel, health care, scholarships and jobs.
The results of Saturday’s elections are expected later Sunday.
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