By Margherita Stancati and Ahmed Al Omran
Updated Dec. 10, 2015 9:21 p.m. ET
RIYADH—Saudi women can’t marry, enroll at university or travel abroad without permission from a male relative. But on Saturday, they will vote and run in a nationwide election for the first time.
Critics say the change is mostly for foreign consumption and will have little impact on the status of women in the kingdom. But many female voters see the vote for municipal councils as a milestone in turning this ultraconservative Gulf monarchy into a slightly more democratic place.
“It’s a first step. It’s the start of us becoming more active citizens,” said Salma al-Rashid, who works for Al Nahda Society, a group that launched a countrywide campaign to get out the female vote.
Saudi women are gradually taking a more prominent role in public life. The government is introducing a series of socially delicate reforms, including bringing more women into the workplace. Several have taken up senior positions in the private sector.
So far, there has been surprisingly little opposition to female voting in a country where women aren’t even allowed to drive. One video on social media shows a man slashing the campaign poster of a female candidate. Another says: “We cannot accept this.”
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with no elected legislature and limited space for political participation. The first municipal elections were only held in 2005.
Six years later, the country’s late monarch, King Abdullah, said that women, too, would soon be allowed to vote. The announcement was hailed as a breakthrough for women’s rights in the kingdom, and it is regarded as one of Abdullah’s most important legacies.
King Abdullah also brought women onto the Shura Council, an appointed body which advises the government on policy and serves as a quasi-parliament with limited legislative powers. Women make up a fifth of the council.
Women who registered ahead of this municipal election represent only a small portion of the electorate. They make up around 130,000 out of the country’s 1.49 million registered voters.
The issues range from opening of new day-care centers to fixing potholes and promoting healthier eating.
The number of registered voters is a fraction of the population of about 31 million, roughly a third of whom are migrant workers and not eligible to vote. Fewer than half-a-million new voters registered this time around.
There are roughly 980 female candidates out of a total of more than 6,900 and few, if any, are expected to actually win a seat.
“This is to prove that we are citizens—and that is more important than winning,” said one candidate, a Riyadh-based doctor. She didn’t want to be named because Saudi election rules prohibit candidates from giving interviews in the two weeks before the vote.
That is one of several restrictions that have contributed to making the election unusually quiet, at least compared with countries like the U.S.
Saudi candidates are barred from displaying their own photos on any campaign material. And, in keeping with the kingdom’s strict policy of gender segregation, they are not allowed to directly interact with potential voters of the opposite sex.
Since the overwhelming majority of registered voters are men, this rule has posed a bigger obstacle to female candidates. Some had to rely on male proxies to do the talking for them. Others communicated to potential male voters through screens or with the help of electronic devices.
At her campaign headquarters in a high-end Riyadh hotel, one candidate set up a audio connection to talk to men sitting in a nearby room. For many of the candidates, most campaigning happened online, through social media and websites rich in visual content that detailed their program.
Despite these efforts, the single biggest challenge candidates have faced is apathy.
“I don’t see what the point is,” said Mahassen Bilal, a Riyadh resident, as she strolled with her husband. He too said he would not vote.
To encourage participation, the government lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, and launched its own campaign.
Jedaia al-Qahtany, who heads Saudi Arabia’s election commission, said he is satisfied with the numbers.
“It’s a new experience,” he said.
Candidates are competing for about 2,100 seats in local councils, which have some power to approve budgets and to oversee the maintenance of public facilities such as roads and schools. Two thirds of 3,159 seats in total are elected, while the rest are appointed by the minister of municipal and rural affairs.
But some women see the election as a distraction from other, more vexing problems, such as the issue of male guardianship or inequality of rights in divorce, custody and inheritance cases. Or the fact that they still aren’t allowed to drive.
“It’s not about the right to vote, as much as getting basic civil rights,” said Al Hanouf al-Dahash, a 27-year-old banker.