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Saudi women register to vote for the first time: ‘A dream for us’

Saudi women visit the 2010 Saudi Travel and Tourism Investment Market fair in Riyadh. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

Two women in Saudi Arabia made history last week when they became the country's first registered female voters, according to local media.

“The participation of the Saudi women in the municipal elections as voters and candidates was a dream for us,” Jamal al-Saadi, one of the women who registered, told the Saudi Gazette. She added: "I was quite ready for this day."

A handful of women, including an 18-year-old, registered in Medina and Mecca, where the process began early. Voter registration opened up in the rest of the country on Saturday, and candidates can begin signing up Aug. 30. Men and women will vote in separate polling places.

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Registration day was a long time coming for women such as Saadi. In 2011, the now-late King Abdullah announced that women would be allowed to vote and run as candidates starting in 2015. Municipal elections, which began in 2005, are the only such contests in the monarchy, and those elected have limited authority. The share of elected municipal council seats will increase from one-half to two-thirds this year; the rest of the seats are appointed.

Activists welcomed the opening up of polls to women, but many said that it fell short of leveling gender inequalities in the ultraconservative country, which adheres to a strict interpretation of sharia law.

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Women in Saudi Arabia cannot legally drive and need a "male guardian's" permission to travel or work, restrictions that leave Saudi women extremely dependent on men. Saudi Arabia ranked 130 out of 142 countries in the 2014 World Economic Forum global gender gap report. Only about 13 percent of women work, even though more than half of Saudi graduates are women, according to Saudi governmental statistics.

In 2011, Amnesty International called Abdullah's move "much overdue" but said it "does not go nearly far enough."

"The whole system of women's subordination to men in Saudi Arabia needs to be dismantled," said Philip Luther, Amnesty's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa. "While moving in the right direction, Saudi Arabia is moving far too slowly. Ultimately, it is no great achievement to be one of the last countries in the world to grant women the vote."

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Registration remains open for three weeks ahead of December's elections. Saadi, a businesswoman, said she would consider running as a candidate, as well. "I may have such ambitions — I love to go through this experience till the very end," she told the Gazette.