00:27 GMT30 September 2020
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    In what the Saudi government has described as a "significant milestone in progress towards a participation-based society," Mecca and Medina saw the first wave of female citizens in the country’s history turn up to register for the upcoming municipal elections in December.

    Jamal al-Saadi is a business woman in Medina, who has chaired the real estate committee of the city’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Safinaz Abu al-Shamat is a teacher in a girl’s school in Mecca, and recently volunteered for the city’s annual summer camp. The two women may not have much in common, but they both just went down as the first female citizens in the country to register to vote in their respective cities.

    In September 2011, the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud announced that he will grant women in the country the right to both vote and compete in elections. "We refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Sharia," he said at the time, referring to the country’s Islamic law.

    The decision was hailed as a progressive step for a country where women’s rights are severely limited, and four years later, it has finally become a reality. The government is gearing up for the new law, and is set to turn 424 of the country’s 1,623 voting centers into spaces exclusively for women by the December elections.

    "The participation of the Saudi women in the municipal elections as voters and candidates was a dream for us," al-Saadi told the Saudi Gazette. "The move will enable Saudi women to have a say in the process of decision making."

    Eager to participate in this historic event, both al-Saadi said she made sure that all her documents were in order before going to register. She added that she was still considering the possibility of nominating herself as a candidate.

    "I may have such ambitions – I love to go through this experience till the very end," she said.

    Similarly, al-Shamat was so excited by the prospect of participating in an election that she left for the registration office extra early on Sunday morning.

    "I was the first woman to arrive at the center,” she told the Gazette. “I was the first to register and the first to obtain a voter’s card in Mecca."

    Saudi Arabia’s two Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina began voter registration one week earlier than the rest of the country. While the turnout for female voters has been relatively low, election officials say they expect it to pick up, as registration is open for a full 21 days. Mecca’s election coordinator, Ihab al-Rifaie also noted that a low turnover is not unusual for the first day of registration.

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    Tags:
    voting rights, elections, Ihab al-Rifaie, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, Safinaz Abu al-Shamat, Jamal al-Saadi, Saudi Arabia, Medina, Mecca
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