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Why 900 women are running for office in Saudi Arabia

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Hasan Jamali/AP

(Read caption) Aziza Yousef drives a car in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2014 as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. Women will be running and voting in municipal elections for the first time on Dec. 12, 2015.

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The Dec. 12 elections for local councils in Saudi Arabia will be the third in the nation’s modern history, but the first election allowing female voters and candidates. 

In a 2011 order, the now deceased King Abdullah announced women would be permitted to nominate candidates in the next set of municipal elections. And in Saudi Arabia’s governmental system, allowing women to participate in the nomination process is equivalent to voting. 

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Saudi Arabia has been testing the democratic waters for women since 2005, when 17 women were allowed to run for seats on the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. 

This time around, more than 900 female candidates have nominated themselves for municipal posts, but other gender-specific restrictions will make their actual election difficult.

Their election leaflets cannot have photographs and they are not allowed to speak with men at their campaign meetings. While these election guidelines apply to both sexes, men have an inherent advantage in private campaigning. “If I want to win, I have to target men and women,” Nassima al-Sadah, a human rights advocate and election candidate, told the New York Times. “I can’t win if I don’t talk to men.”

And Saudi women, including election candidates, are not allowed to drive, and they require the permission of their “guardians” (either father, husband or brother) before any travel. 

“Women’s voices will finally be heard,” Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a Saudi women’s right activist, told CNN in 2011. “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.” 

But some female activists have decided to protest the election altogether.

Feminist Aziza al-Yousef calls the elections a “play.” “Things are getting worse and worse,” says Ms. Yousef, who fears the new king, Salam, will end his predecessor’s gradual gender reforms. And without larger cultural reform, she argues, more women going to college just creates “a well-educated prison.”

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“I think we need to change the whole system,” she says. “We don’t need revolution but we need evolution, to change the structure of government.” 

Of the 21 million eligible Saudi voters, only 131,000 women have registered to vote in the Dec. 12 elections, compared to more than 1.35 million men. 

And some Saudi women are indifferent to their new enfranchisement, because municipal councils are almost powerless. Because Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, the royal family holds almost all legitimate power. 

But still, say some women's rights advocates, it’s something.

“It’s just baby steps, and the people want more and more,” said Nassima al-Sadah, a female candidate in the town of Qateef.

“It’s not that they are give us our rights," said Ms. al-Sadah. "But it’s not too hard a way to educate women and people in general throughout society what our rights are.”

Since succeeding Abdullah in January, King Salman has seemed uninterested in female political reforms, and there will probably be “less pressure to expand political rights for women if they don’t exercise the limited ones they now have.” 

Loujain al-Hathloul, Candidate Number 1 in Riyadh District 5, agrees Saudi women have to start somewhere.

“I’m not excited by the idea of winning,” Ms. Hathloul, who was arrested and sentenced to 73 days in prison earlier this year for participating in a campaign to allow women to drive, told The Telegraph. “I’m focused on increasing the number of women who stand in elections.” 

But for reasons elusive to them, both al-Sadah and Hathloul have been disqualified as candidates by the Saudi government.