A Saudi woman paints using Arabic coffee during the International Coffee and Chocolate Exhibition in the desert kingdom's capital Riyadh on December 15, 2014. AFP PHOTO / FAYEZ NURELDINE        (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
What women in Saudi Arabia can -- and can't -- do
01:59 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Polls opened Saturday morning

The voting is for municipal councils that oversee planning decisions

This is also the first year Saudi women can run for public office

CNN  — 

Saudi Arabia women voted in municipal elections Saturday morning, marking the first time they have been allowed to cast ballots in the conservative nation.

Women in the conservative religious kingdom are being allowed both to run for office and to vote this year, although critics have said restrictions on both activities have made it hard on would-be women candidates and voters.

Among other things, women have complained of difficulties proving identity and residency and a limited number of registration centers, according to Human Rights Watch.

Female candidates also were barred from speaking to male voters and required to segregate campaign offices, the organization said.

In the end, 979 women candidates and 130,637 women voters registered to participate in the election, according to Saudi election officials. A total of 5,938 men are running for the local offices, which mostly oversee planning and development issues.

Voters will fill half of the seats. The King selects the other half, according to the U.S. State Department.

A significant step forward

More than 1.3 million men have registered to vote, according to the Saudi government.

The move to allow women to vote has been described as a step forward for equality in the male-dominated kingdom.

“Saudi women have faced significant obstacles in their fight for their right to vote and run in the municipal council elections, but their participation on December 12 will send a strong signal to Saudi society that women are continuing the long march toward greater participation in public life,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Monday.

But how much of an impact it will have is very much up in the air.

Fatin Bundagji, a spokeswoman for the women’s suffrage movement in Saudia Arabia, told Foreign Policy that much will depend on how women do in Saturday’s voting.

“My fear is that at this stage we have momentum, but once things settle, and if women are not elected, life goes back to normal,” she said. “The impact all depends on how the elections go.”

Women’s roles changing

Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Sunni Islam has given rise to an informal system of male guardianship over women that requires women be accompanied by a male guardian to travel or go to school.

They are required to cover their heads, and may not drive.

Still, the role of women in the kingdom has slowly been evolving.

Saudi officials first proposed allowing women to vote in 2005, according to Human Rights Watch. The late King Abdullah, who died in January, issued a decree in 2011 ordering that women be allowed to vote in municipal elections and stand as candidates.

Amid turmoil, Saudi King Abdullah brought stability, pushed reforms

Two years later, he ordered that at least 20% of seats in the Consultative Council be set aside for women. The council advises the king and can propose laws. He appointed 30 women to the council a month later, according to the U.S. State Department.

The number of women in the Saudi workforce also has been increasing, from 23,000 in 2004 to more than 400,000 in 2015, according to the government.

Saudi Arabia Fast Facts

Tiffany Ap contributed to this report.