Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has ruled that women will be allowed to vote and run as candidates in the country's nationwide local elections for the first time, a critical victory for those who have long campaigned for the most basic of rights in the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom.
Yesterday's announcement marks a major symbolic achievement for Saudi women, who have stepped up their public campaigns in recent months pushing for universal suffrage, the right to drive and a lifting of the strict guardianship laws that govern almost every aspect of their lives.
But the changes come much too slowly for some – women will not be able to participate in elections this Thursday as nominations are already closed – and leaves the issue of other fundamental freedoms unaddressed.
In an annual speech to his advisory council, King Abdullah said women would be able to vote for and stand in the next municipal elections four years from now, giving them access to the only public polls in the country. They will also be appointed to the next session of the influential Shura Council, the unelected body that advises the king.
"Because we refuse to marginalise women in all roles that comply with Sharia, we have decided, after deliberation, to involve women in the Shura Council, starting from the next term," the 86-year-old Saudi monarch said.
Apart from Brunei, where neither men nor women can vote, Saudi is the last country in the world to deny women the vote. It held its first municipal elections in 2005.