Women in Saudi Arabia began registering to vote this week for the first time in the nation's history. But the roadblocks to voting they still face are a reminder of how much progress the country has yet to make on gender equality.
The late King Abdullah announced in 2011 that women would be allowed to run for office and vote in municipal elections, which take place every four years. Registration for the upcoming election, to be held Dec. 12, began this past Sunday.
The first two women to register were Jamal Al-Saadi in Medina and Safinaz Abu Al-Shamat in Mecca, the Saudi Gazette reported.
At least 70 women intend to run for office, and more than 80 registered as campaign managers, Arab News reported last month.
"The participation of the Saudi women in the municipal elections as voters and candidates was a dream for us," Saadi told the Gazette. "We are just at the beginning of the road."
While the legal barrier to voting has been lifted, other Saudi laws and culture could complicate women's efforts to cast their ballots.
Saudi women still have to contend with limits on their freedom of movement, and since it's illegal for them to drive, many of them will have to rely on male members of their family to take them to register and to vote. Male relatives who oppose female voting rights could also be a barrier. The government also requires voters to have personal ID cards, and many Saudi women do not.
"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," researcher Adam Coogle said in a Thursday article for Human Rights Watch. "Only then will Saudi Arabia’s women be able to contribute to society on an equal footing with men."
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, the Middle East and North Africa consultant at international women’s advocacy group Equality Now, echoed Coogle's concerns in an email to The Huffington Post.
"It is a great step forward and we encourage every single move towards empowering women and girls in Saudi Arabia and ending discrimination against them," Abu-Dayyeh said. "What is needed next is to continue to work towards ending the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia, which causes enormous hardship for Saudi women. Everyone will benefit from this."