Saudi Arabia’s elections are coming up on December 12, and women are finally allowed to participate.

Elections have been scarce in Saudi Arabia, being held only twice since the 1960s – once in 2005 and then in 2011. The excitement around December’s election is centered around the inclusion of women, thanks to now-deceased King Abdullah, who gave women the right to vote and run for municipal office. King Abdullah also dictated that at least 20% of the Consultative Council and boards of chambers of commerce include women as well.

While almost 1000 women are running for these low-level positions, this is a relatively small number compared to the 7000 men who will be competing against them. Moreover, women will continue to have an immense disadvantage due pre-existing legal barriers that prevent women from traveling alone, using photos in their campaigns, talking directly with men, or partaking in media interviews. These disadvantages are compounded by the fact that the majority of women remain unregistered to vote, requiring female candidates to be heavily reliant on getting men to vote them into office.

Women in Saudi Arabia face a plethora of prohibitions that keeping them from living as freely as their male counterparts and inhibiting their ability to campaign successfully. Most well-known are the bans on female drivers and appearing in public alone –  laws which make women completely dependent on their mahram, or male guardians.

Women’s suffrage and political participation in such an immensely segregated country is a hopeful sign, but it worth questioning whether this action is nothing more than just a token gesture from the conservative Sunni government. Amnesty International responded to the situation by saying it is “a welcome, albeit limited, step along the long road towards gender equality in Saudi Arabia, and a testament to the long struggle of women’s rights activists there.” To the dismay of female voters, polling stations are still segregated, with only approximately 424 out of 1263 assigned to women. Even if women are able to get to a polling station, many of them do not have the required ID cards for voter registration and check-in.

Saudi Arabia’s current leader, King Salman, is known to be a strong proponent of religious conservatism. However, the choice ultimately lies in the hands of King Salman’s deputy crown prince and defense minister, Mohamed bin Salman. The prince’s future role and influence in the government is still uncertain, especially due to his reformist views.

Although the late King Abdullah’s decision to allow women to run for office and vote should be lauded, there is a much greater need to address the full extent of the changes Saudi Arabia needs to enact in order to effectively achieve gender equality.

Photo Credit: Flickr user recycleharmony (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)