Saudi women are about to vote for the first time — if they can get to the polls.

Municipal elections have been held in Saudi Arabia twice in the last 10 years. Both times, only men were allowed to vote.

Then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel visited Saudi Prince Fahd bin Abdullah in 2013. Photo via Erin Kirk-Cuomo.


Elections were supposed to happen every four years, which would have put them on this voting schedule: 2005, 2009, 2013.

But the Saudi government postponed the 2009 elections until 2011, citing a need to evaluate them, which was frustratingly vague to citizens yearning for a say in their local governments.

It's time to register to vote in the upcoming Saudi elections. But this time, women are registering, too. How did that come about?

During the delay, efforts increased to secure an actual election and women continued their campaign to gain access to democracy, too. At the same time, the Arab Spring was happening in Egypt and other countries, with the leadership of nearby Middle Eastern countries monitoring the protests and taking cues on how much autonomy to give their citizens.

That movement sparked the kinds of dictator-y dilemmas one might imagine happening in that context: "How much agency can I give people to avoid an uprising but still maintain control?" And as some political analysts note, throwing people a bone by allowing women to vote in municipal elections is an example of calculated concessions.

Technically, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections in 2011, but this will be the first election since that edict. Not everyone in Saudi society is a fan of the decision, but sharp divides are par for the course when it comes to what actually constitutes equal rights for women in many countries.

John Kerry visited King Abdullah in 2014. Image via U.S. Department of State.

Fast-forward to 2015. The election that was originally supposed to happen in 2013 is now happening in December. Earlier this year, there was some uncertainty about whether women would actually be able to vote. That's because King Abdullah, who issued the decree on women voting, died in January. Thankfully, his decision was upheld by the new Saudi King Salman.

Many women in Saudi Arabia are delighted to learn that, this time, a king's decree is really coming true.

Saudi women at a mall in Riyadh. Tribes of the World/Flickr.

But there's one big problem: Women can't drive themselves to the voting booths.

In Saudi Arabia, it's still illegal for women to drive. And not just the kind of illegal where people do it anyway and the authorities look the other way — the kind where a woman driving is seen as a real political act of defiance and a threat to authority.

They can't just catch a ride to the polls with their husbands or brothers, either. Because of the stringent segregation in public between men and women, a third of the polls are set aside as women-only, with men using the rest of the locations.

Amnesty International pointed out that voting, while long overdue, is only one small part of women's equality. Driving — and the fact that women still require permission from a male guardian before they can travel, work, marry, or attend school — is still a huge factor in Saudi women's rights.

We all know that just because a right is acknowledged, it doesn't mean a group that's been treated as second-class citizens is immediately empowered.

There's a fable about a baby elephant chained to a stake at the circus. The stake was firmly set in the ground and that small, fledgling elephant learned that, no matter how hard she tried, she could not make it budge. As she grew larger and more powerful, she could have charged forward and mightily freed herself with nary an effort if she'd so decided. But in her mind, that stake was immovable, so she never thought to try.

That's not to patronize the sheer force of will it took for activists to make this happen. But that fable is akin to what any newly "equal" group is up against — a hard-won concession to allow their voices to shape their environment, pitted against an ingrained apathy or sense of futility for some that can stem from coping mechanisms amid decades of oppression.

While that can't be undone in one election, hopefully it's a first step toward women eventually ripping that proverbial stake out of the ground.

Haifa al-Hababi, a 36-year-old candidate at a workshop to run in the upcoming election, said: “Change the system. Change is life. The government has given us this tool and I intend to use it."

Photo courtesy of Claudia Romo Edelman
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