Two businesswomen have become Saudi Arabia's first female elected officials, a historic step in a deeply conservative country where women are largely barred from public life. Saudi officials said Wednesday that Lama Sulaiman and Nashwa Taher had won seats on the board of Jidda's chamber of commerce. Little information was available about the women, who could not be reached for comment.
The chamber's weekend elections were the first polls in Saudi Arabia in which women were allowed to run and vote. "It seems the decision … came from very high up, and it's likely going to be followed with more steps," said Badreiah Beshr, a Saudi sociologist who follows women's issues. "It was a preparatory move, but the road ahead is still a difficult one."
Women were not allowed to vote or be candidates in the kingdom's first nationwide municipal elections, which were held this year. Electoral officials have said that women might cast votes in municipal balloting in 2009. The Jidda Trade and Industry Chamber initially rejected the nomination of 10 women for its board, but the kingdom's trade minister ordered it to open the door to female candidates and allow women to vote, after a flood of petitions from businesswomen.
King Abdullah, who ascended the throne in August and is seen as a reformist, has said he wants to ease restrictions on women. Women are prevented from driving cars and are limited in traveling abroad. This year, female executives in the eastern city of Dammam were allowed to vote in their chamber of commerce polls, but only if a male guardian cast their ballots for them. Beshr said the government was approaching the issue of women in politics cautiously because of the kingdom's long-standing and deeply conservative brand of Islam.
Saudi Arabia's royal family retains absolute power, and Saudis cannot hold public gatherings to discuss political or social issues. Jidda, a Red Sea port, is the kingdom's second-largest city after Riyadh, the capital. Women make up about 10% of the 40,000 members of the Jidda chamber. The two women will join 16 men on the board, reports Los Angeles Times. I.L.