Fully veiled Saudi women browse the annual International Book Exhibition in the capital Riyadh on March 4, 2014.
What women in Saudi Arabia can -- and can't -- do
01:59 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

At least 17 women elected to public office

The voting was for municipal councils that oversee planning decisions

CNN  — 

At least 17 women have been elected to public office in Saudi Arabia, according to preliminary results published in state media Monday. Saturday’s historic elections for municipal councils marked the first time women in the country were allowed to vote and to run for office.

The female winners include Salma al-Oteibi in the Mecca region, Lama al-Suleiman and Rasha Hufaithi in Jeddah, Hanouf al-Hazimi in Al Jouf province, and Sanaa al-Hammam and Masoumah Abdelreda in the Ahsa region.

Despite the new rights extended to women, critics have said restrictions made it hard on women who wanted to run for office and vote.

Among other things, women 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 ran 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 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 last week.

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

CNN’s Yousuf Basil, Tiffany Ap, Schams Elwazer, and Mesrop Najarian contributed to this report.