Voting underway in first Saudi Arabian elections open to female voters and candidates

Almost a thousand female candidates are running against around 6,000 men for places on local councils

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Saudi women vote at a polling center during the country's municipal elections in Riyadh. Image: Aya Batrawy / AP/Press Association Images

Voting has begun in Saudi Arabia's first elections open to female voters and candidates.

More than 5,000 men and around 980 women are standing as candidates, with more than 130,000 women registered to vote compared to 1.35 million men.

The vote has been seen as a tentative step towards easing restrictions that are among the world's tightest on women.

Men and women vote separately in the kingdom, where the sexes are strictly segregated.

The Islamist monarchy, where woman are banned from driving and must cover themselves from head to toe in public, was the last country in the world where only men were allowed to vote.

More than 900 women are running for seats on municipal councils, Saudi Arabia's only elected public chambers.

They are up against almost 6,000 men competing for places on 284 councils whose powers are restricted to local matters, including responsibility for streets, public gardens and rubbish collection.

The polls close at 5pm local time (2pm Irish time), and counting will begin on Sunday.

Gender segregation at public facilities meant that female candidates were unable to directly meet the majority of voters - men - during their campaigns.

Women also said voter registration was hindered by bureaucratic obstacles, a lack of awareness of the process and its significance, and the fact that women could not drive to sign up.

This means that fewer than one in 10 voters are women and few, if any, female candidates are expected to win.

However, one-third of the seats are appointed by the municipal affairs ministry, which means female candidates could still be assigned some seats.

A Saudi man prepares to cast his vote at a polling center during the country's municipal elections in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Image: Khalid Mohammed / AP/Press Association Images

The oil-rich country boasts modern infrastructure, but women still face many restrictions and must get permission from male family members to travel, work or get married.

Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by the al-Saud family of King Salman, has no elected legislature and has faced intense scrutiny from the West over its human rights record.

A slow expansion of women's rights began four years ago under Salman's predecessor Abdullah, who announced that women would join the elections this year.

The kingdom's first municipal ballot in 2005 was for men only.

Win or lose, Doctor Fawzia Al-Harbi knows she is making history, saying the country's women "have been waiting to be given this opportunity for the last ten years".