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Saudi Arabia took a significant step forward this week by allowing women for the first time to both register to vote and to run for office in the municipal elections due to take place in December.  

The move allays concerns that King Salman, rumored to be closer to the country’s hardline conservative religious establishment than his predecessor, could slow the already gradual process of women’s rights reforms shepherded by the late King Abdullah.

Saudi women take photos of the military band performing in Riyadh November 6, 2011.  © 2011 Reuters

This latest move also sends an important message to all sectors of Saudi society: That women, as well as men, have a stake in the country and are qualified to make decisions that affect the public interest.

Yet allowing women to vote and stand in the elections is only a first step towards full equality for women, and even achieving that has been problematic. Some people have complained that many Saudi women do not have personal ID cards, a requirement for voting. In principle, all Saudi women can obtain ID cards without asking anyone else’s permission. But bars on women’s freedom of movement and opposition from male family members can make it difficult for some women to obtain ID card.

Additionally, this month the Ministry of Social Affairs suspended election training workshops held by the Baladi initiative, a Saudi women-led project that presses for women to have a greater role in Saudi society. The ministry says it closed the workshops over licensing issues.

The Saudi Gazette reported on August 18 that the turnout for women’s voter registration was low in Mecca and Madina, the first cities to begin the process, with only five women registering in Medina on the first day.

Some women in Saudi Arabia are gradually accessing their rights, something that’s particularly visible in women’s increasing entry into the workforce and access to higher education. But while it’s a sign of progress, allowing women to stand and vote in elections – and then only municipal elections – is not enough to secure women’s full integration into Saudi public life.

To make serious headway on women’s rights, Saudi authorities should scrap the male guardianship system, under which ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, traveling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or son. Authorities also need to ensure Saudi women have full control over all of the major decisions that affect their lives. Only then will Saudi Arabia’s women be able to contribute to society on an equal footing with men.

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