RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The first Saudi women ever to cast ballots in the kingdom hugged and took souvenir selfies during groundbreaking elections Saturday that marked another step in social reforms but failed to stir a major turnout at the polls.
Still, there was no denying that the ultraconservative Sunni Muslim kingdom had fundamentally changed the definition of citizenship for half the country — and nudged Saudi policies just a bit further away from more uncompromising interpretations of Islam.
It also could energize initiatives to expand women’s voices in a country that still imposes a host of restrictions on women, including a ban on driving. Even election overseers — whose words are closely vetted by the ruling system — spoke with unusual passion about women’s rights and the leadership’s pride in the municipal council elections that included more than 950 female candidates.
It is unlikely the elections will significantly tone down criticism by Western rights groups, which frequently call attention to issues such as beheadings and crackdowns on dissent. What Saturday's voting does give Saudi leaders, however, is an opportunity to showcase Saudi women in a new light.
“I’m about to do it,” 30-year-old government worker Jawaher al-Rawili told a friend over the phone before entering a women-only polling station in Riyadh. “It’s so exciting!”
The races at hand — more than 3,000 municipal council seats across the kingdom — have no influence over decisions by Saudi rulers on social policies or in any other key areas. That meant little to the women trickling in to vote: some with even their entire faces veiled, others testing limits with head scarves pushed back to allow hair to spill out and wearing bedazzled sneakers.
“This is a day for all Saudi women if they voted or not,” said Latifa al-Bazei, 53. “We are gaining a right that was kept from half the country for too long.”
Behind her, groups of women took selfies and posted images on social media. One flashed a V-for-victory sign.
Despite the potential significance of the elections, only a relative small fraction of Saudis registered to vote. The reasons included deep cynicism about the stunted powers of the municipal councils, something akin to public works departments. Some also faulted the Saudi leadership as failing to publicize the elections — which appeared to gain more attention abroad than inside the kingdom.
Nearly 1.5 million people were on the voters lists — including only about 130,000 women. That is well short of the total number of Saudis eligible to vote. Election officials placed the eligible total at up to 5 million. The real figure, however, is likely to be much higher in a nation of more than 20 million citizens.
“Nothing is perfect,” a senior election official, Hamid al-Amer, told reporters. “We are trying our best.”
Although civic authorities rallied to highlight the vote — adding photos of Saudi women in workplaces to a picture wall for a news conference — one of the most important patrons of the day, Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment, was far in the background.
Women’s participation could not have occurred without clearance from the religious hierarchy, which gives Saudi Arabia’s Western-allied leaders the moral authority to rule over Islam’s holiest sites. The clerics’ apparent nod is a critical signal that they recognize shifts in Saudi society.
In major urban centers such as Riyadh and Jiddah, opposition to women’s participation was mostly confined to hard-line clerics and traditionalists. The tide among men appeared decidedly in favor of women’s voting.
“Do you just want to keep the door locked on her?” said 65-year-old Fahd al-Shewaydah, who needed help to walk from the polling station to his car in Riyadh. “It’s a blessed hour.”
Results are expected Sunday. There was no exit polling or other ways to credibly forecast the outcome.
Two-thirds of the council seats will be decided in the election. The rest will be filled by appointment based on needed expertise such as degrees in engineering or traffic management. This opens room for Saudi leaders to add more women despite the election count.
“We expect, we hope, there will be women winners,” said Hamad Saad al-Omar, a spokesman for the government ministry overseeing the elections. “If they lose, it’s possible they could be appointed, depending on the needs.”
Already, women have been appointed to the Shura Council, a high-level advisory body, as part of gradual changes directed by the late King Abdullah, who died in January and promised women the vote years before his death.
His successor, King Salman, may now be watched closely on whether he will craft his own reforms to suit the times.
“There are inherent tensions in the country that Salman must heed,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh. “Along with social reforms, people also want some political reforms and a greater say in the country’s affairs. This is especially true after the Arab Spring.”
“Salman,” he added, “has to figure out how to thread this needle.”
Adding to the potential pressures is the relentless hum of social media, which was used as the main point of outreach for many female candidates. Saudi Arabia — with a huge population under 30 years old — is among the world’s most active social-media landscapes per capita. Twitter, Snapchat and other sites constantly buzz with gossip, news tips and views about the direction of Saudi society.
“There is a Saudi public opinion” that is driven by social media, said Walter Russell Mead, a foreign policy commentator with groups including the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington.
At the King Salman Social Center, a government-run complex, female voters set their own priorities: more job opportunities, expanded chances for senior positions in government and academia. Driving was often farther down the list.
“Let’s worry about the big things first before we get bogged down in disputes over driving,” said Najd al-Hababi, whose sister, Haifa, was running for a council seat. “I know this is a huge thing in the West, but we have other things, bigger things, on our agenda.”
Across Riyadh, a succession of chauffeur-driven luxury cars — a Lexus, a Bentley, a Mercedes-Benz with dark-tinted windows — pulled up at a polling station in the neighborhood of al-Mada with female voters in the back seats. They walked through a metal door leading to the women-only section. Some pulled back their face coverings. They were smiling.
“This isn’t just a step for Saudi women,” said voter Fatima al-Juraysi. “It’s a giant step. Let’s now hope it isn’t the last.”