Four years after King Abdullah announced that women will be granted equal voting rights and the right to run for office in the conservative Muslim country, women in Saudi Arabia began to register to vote this past weekend.
On Sunday, Jamal Al-Saadi and Safinaz Abu Al-Shamat became the first women to register to vote in municipal elections in Medina and Mecca, respectively, according to local English-language paper the Saudi Gazette. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia opened up registration in the two holy cities a week before the rest of the country for elections that are slated to take place in December.
"[Voting is] a dream for us," Al-Saadi told the Saudi Gazette. "[It] will enable Saudi women to have a say in the process of the decision-making."
Both Al Saadi and Al-Shamat told the newspaper that they had taken care to prepare all their paperwork ahead of time, in order to ensure they will not be turned away at the polls.
Initial voter registration turnout was low among women in the two cities, but registration will open for the entire country starting on Saturday, and will last until September 14. At least 80 women are expected to run in the upcoming elections, according to Arab News.
"[Women] are seeking any venue to exercise their rights, so I would expect at least 60 to 70 percent of Saudi women, especially the younger generation, will turn out to vote if they are allowed to," Ali Alyami, the Director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, told VICE News.
The decision to allow women to vote was part of a gradual reform effort by King Adbullah before his death in January, which also included establishing the first co-ed university and appointing the first women to the Council of Ministers as deputy education minister. But it was granting women the right to vote that was seen as by far the biggest step in the direction of gender equality in one of the most conservative countries in the world.
"Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with sharia [Islamic law], we have decided... to involve women in the Shura Council as members, starting from the next term," Abdullah said in 2011. "Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote."
While the move towards women's voting rights was met with praise by some, it was greeted with skepticism by others, who pointed out that women are still marginalized in most sectors of public life in Saudi Arabia.
"This long overdue move is welcome, but it's only a tiny fraction of what needs to be addressed over gender inequality in Saudi Arabia," a spokesperson from Amnesty International told VICE News. "Let's not forget that Saudi Arabian women won't actually be able to drive themselves to the voting booths as they're still completely banned from driving."
"Many wide-ranging reforms are still needed for human rights to become a reality in Saudi Arabia," added the Amnesty International spokesperson.
While Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive a car, in recent years, Saudi female activists have organized several campaigns aimed at getting women driving in the streets. The government has responded harshly. In 2011, a woman was sentenced to 10 lashes for flouting the driving ban — though the punishment was later overturned after international outrage. Activists tried again in 2013, with dozens of Saudi women posting images of themselves driving cars on social media, but the government blocked the campaign. One high-ranking Saudi government cleric said that driving could damage a women's ovaries and poses a risk to their reproductive health.
"Saudi women are extremely resilient people…they are imposing their will on society."
In addition to not being permitted to go anywhere without a male chaperone, Saudi women only comprise 13 percent of the national workforce. In 2014, the country ranked 130 out of 146 countries for global gender equality.
Alyami agrees that Saudi Arabian women face "immense" obstacles ahead because of tradition, as well as religious and economic constraints. "[Saudi Arabia] is still an extremely misogynistic society," he told VICE News.
But the upcoming elections are still an important step in the right direction. "The important thing is that [women] are voting and hopefully running for office," Alyami added. "Which, psychologically speaking, will be very, very empowering."
The elections are not just symbolic for women in Saudi Arabia, but for the entire country, in which democracy is non-existent. "There is no legislative power in Saudi Arabia," Alyami said. "[The Consultative Council] is a rubber-stamp institution… they only approve what the king sends to approve. People cannot legislate, they cannot vote against what the king wants. Its one way down, nothing goes up."
"I don't see anything that will be different in terms of power sharing [if women are elected]," said Alyami. "The power will remain in the hands of the king and the Saudi ruling family."
But Alyami says that it is still in the country's best interest for women to participate in December's election, because countries where women are empowered and have equality are the most successful.
"The Saudi system, regardless of what they say, is very sensitive to global pressures," Alyami said. "It is the women who are actually leading the pack in terms of promoting reforms in the country… they are the most critical of the religious establishment and of their disenfranchisement.
"Saudi women are extremely resilient people… they are imposing their will on society."
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928