In a major advancement for women’s rights in the conservative Muslim kingdom, Saudi Arabian women will gain the right to vote and run as candidates in local elections in 2015, King Abdullah announced Sunday.
The monarch made the announcement in an annual speech before the advisory assembly, or Shura Council, just days before municipal elections in which women will be excluded.
Saudi Arabia held its first-ever municipal elections in 2005.
“We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society and in every aspect, within the rules of Sharia,” Abdullah said, referring to the Islamic code of conduct.
Activists in the country have long called for more rights for women, with a focus this year on the right to drive, which women are not allowed to do without permission of a male relative.
The response to the announcement Sunday was mixed. Some Saudi activists, including the women who campaigned for the right to drive, hailed the decision:
One of those who welcomed the decision was Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman who was jailed for driving a car and encouraging other women to do so in May. She tweeted Sunday:
Others Saudi activists, however, criticized the slow pace of reform:
Despite the announcement, women still cannot drive and the sexes will continue to be segregated in public. Sarah al-Fayez, a Saudi woman in Riyadh, criticized the move for not going far enough:
The monarch, however, acknowledged that women continue to desire greater social freedoms.
“Balanced modernization, which falls within our Islamic values, is an important demand in an era where there is no place for defeatist or hesitant people,” he said.
Watch the monarch’s speech in Arabic below: