RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — At least 19 Saudi women won seats in historic municipal elections that were open to female voters and candidates for the first time here.
Among them were nationally prominent women, as well as some who were little known beyond their home towns.
“I won because I don’t work for my personal gain,” Huda al-Jeraisy, one of two women who won in the Seventh District of northern Riyadh, said Sunday. “I know how to deal with men and to be logical, and I never confront men or get into clashes with them.”
She spoke at a women-only section of a post-election news conference, wearing her full veil and black abaya. When asked whether this has been a democratic step, she replied, “We have democracy. We have always had it. We follow the Koran.”
She acknowledged that the support of her large extended family helped her over the top in Saturday’s balloting; she won by 97 votes.
Hers is also a decidedly influential family. She is the daughter of Saudi businessman Abdulrahman al-Jeraisy, who is the chairman of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and she is on several advisory committees to the chamber. Another winner was Lama al-Sulaiman, a vice chairwoman and board member of the Jiddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Some Saudi women were less than enthusiastic about women who “used their power and family ties to win,” as voter Nora Alkhaldi, 34, put it. “In Saudi Arabia, if your dad is well connected to the business world, many doors open for you — same goes if your dad is a tribal chief who has the loyalty of his people,” she said.
Her friend Mona Alqahtani, who was following two candidates on Twitter who didn’t win, said she was optimistic and willing to give the prominent victors the benefit of the doubt, for now. “I can’t say there won’t be any change,” she said. “We need to give those women a chance to prove themselves. This is just the beginning.”
This election was the first in which women could vote and run as candidates, and many have portrayed it as a progressive step toward democracy and gender equality. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving and requires its female citizens to provide a male guardian’s approval for such basic matters as traveling, working and studying, as well as for marriage and being admitted to hospitals.
Turnout was just over 47 percent of eligible voters. But as this was the first election in which women could cast ballots, the number of registered men far outnumbered women, by 1.35 million to 130,000, the Associated Press reported. The total population of Saudi Arabia is almost 29 million.
Male turnout was at 44 percent, while 82 percent of registered women voted.
Among the women winners were two in the conservative al-Qassim region, three in al-Ahsa in the east, two in Jiddah and at least three in the capital, Riyadh.
About 7,000 candidates, among them 979 women, were competing for 2,100 seats on municipal councils across the country, the Associated Press reported. The councils are the only government bodies elected by Saudi citizens. They do not have legislative powers, but advise authorities and help oversee local budgets.