Saudi King Abdullah on Sunday granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections, in a historic first for the ultra-conservative country where women are subjected to many restrictions.
The 86-year-old monarch made the unexpected announcement that he had issued a decree to enfranchise women in a speech to the Shura Council broadcast live on state television.
“Starting with the next term, women will have the right to run in municipal elections and to choose candidates, according to Islamic principles,” said King Abdullah.
“We have decided that women will participate in the Shura Council as members starting the next term,” he added.
Women’s rights activists have long fought for the right to vote in the Gulf kingdom, which applies a strict version of Sunni Islam and bans women from driving or travelling without the consent of a male guardian.
Manal al-Sharif, the 32-year-old icon of a campaign in which a group of defiant Saudi women got behind the steering wheels of their cars in a protest against the driving ban, told AFP the king’s decision was “a historic and courageous one.”
“The king is a reformist,” she said of the monarch whose country was spared a wave of protests rocking the region by which autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt were toppled.
Abdullah’s move was also hailed by the United States and Britain, which both called it a significant “step forward” for the Saudi people.
“The announcements made today represent an important step forward in expanding the rights of women in Saudi Arabia, and we support King Abdullah and the people of Saudi Arabia as they undertake these and other reforms,” said Tommy Vietor, the White House National Security Council spokesman.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he welcomed the announcement and that “we look forward to examining the full details of the proposed changes and how they will work in practice.”
The king’s decision means that women will be able to take part in the elections that are to be held in four years, as the next vote is due to take place on Thursday and nominations are already closed.
In addition to participating in the only public polls in the country, women would have the right to join the all-appointed Shura (consultative) Council, he said in the address opening the assembly’s new term.
More than 5,000 men will compete in Thursday’s municipal elections, only the second in Saudi Arabia’s history, to fill half the seats in the kingdom’s 285 municipal councils. The other half are appointed by the government.
The first elections were held in 2005, but the government extended the existing council’s term for two years.
King Abdullah said his decision came because “we refuse marginalising women’s role in the Saudi society in all fields,” and followed “consultations with several scholars.”
He did not mention anything about women’s right to drive in the kingdom where they must hire male chauffeurs, or depend on the goodwill of relatives if they do not have the means.
However, he said that “balanced modernisation which agrees with our Islamic values is a necessary demand in an epoch where there is no place for those who are hesitant” in moving forward.
Saudi Arabia has seen many changes since Abdullah became king in 2005.
Norah al-Fayez, who was named to the post of deputy education minister for women’s education in 2009, was the first woman ever named to a ministerial post in the country.
More than 60 intellectuals and activists had called in May for a boycott of the September ballot because “municipal councils lack the authority to effectively carry out their role” and “half of their members are appointed,” as well as because they exclude women.
The Shura Council had recommended allowing women to vote in the next local polls, officials have said.
And in April, Samar Badawi said she was suing the municipal affairs ministry for upholding the ban on women taking part in the local poll.
Badawi filed a lawsuit at the administrative court in Mecca against the ministry for denying women the right to register as voters.
In the same month, a group of women defied the ban on women in elections by turning up at a voter registration office in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, in a rare public demonstration against the male-only electoral system.
But they were turned back by the head of the centre who told them women were still banned from voting.
While being spared any unrest linked to the Arab Spring, the oil-rich Sunni kingdom has however seen minor sporadic demonstrations by Shiites that took place in its Eastern Province.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has publicly thrown her support behind the driving campaign, saying that “what these women are doing is brave, and what they are seeking is right.”
Suheila Zine el-Abidine, an activist from Saudi’s National Human Rights Association, paid tribute to the king for allowing women to vote.
“We are very happy with his decision today,” she said, adding that “by affirming women’s political rights in a royal decree, he has removed all questions raised around this matter.”
Madawi al-Hassun, a businesswoman, was also elated by the move.
“Today is a day of joy for Saudi women,” she said.