This month, women were elected to local government offices for the first time in Saudi Arabia. It was also the first time they had the right to vote. In this opinion piece, Rahilla Zafar, co-author of the Knowledge at Wharton ebook Arab Women Ris­ing, discusses what this means for women’s rights in the region.

Although Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, the voices of its people matter and have in fact been a catalyst for change. On December 12, for the first time ever, Saudi citizens elected 20 women to serve in more than 2,000 local government seats. These elections also saw women voting for the very first time.

This was the third municipal election that took place in the Kingdom, and for Yasmin Altwaijri, one of Saudi Arabia’s most senior scientists, many lessons could be learned from the experience.

Altwaijri, who voted in the election, found the registration and voting process to be smooth. But in her district, where out of 43 female nominees there were 23 candidates, not a single one was elected. The reason: Nearly all the female candidates were very highly qualified; this diluted the voting because there were too many good candidates. “It’s a lesson our district learned the hard way, and this should be taken into consideration during the next elections,” she says.

In our ebook Arab Women Rising, we highlighted Altwaijri’s work as a senior scientist at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh. She is conducting Saudi Arabia’s first state-of-the-art national survey on mental health in collaboration with Harvard Medical School and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She also does research on women’s health and is advocating for public schools in Saudi Arabia to allow female physical education by showing the economic implications on the country’s health care system if issues such as high female obesity rates — among teenage women, especially — are not addressed.

While only a small fraction of Saudi Arabia’s population of around 30 million people voted in the elections, Altwaijri says elected officials in the municipalities continue to become increasingly influential, particularly in raising awareness and supporting work like hers.

“Their winning is extremely important because it means the voters, the majority of whom were men, see women as capable of carrying out the duties of the elected office.” –Muna AbuSulayman

In Riyadh, one woman Altwaijri was happy to see get elected is Huda Aljeraisy, a successful business woman who is physically challenged. “Her areas of priority are to ensure access for people with disabilities and to integrate the environment in urban planning. Both issue are extremely important to ensure that we continue to progress towards Riyadh being a livable city,” says Altwaijri.

For Muna AbuSulayman, a development expert and co-host of the top-rated MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Center) show Kalam Nawaem, the elections were not only a great process, teaching citizens about choosing candidates and campaigning, but also showed the world that women are seen as full citizens in the Kingdom. “Their winning is extremely important because it means the voters, the majority of whom were men, see women as capable of carrying out the duties of the elected office. This shows a cultural shift. There’s still a conservative segment that dislikes this, but they’re becoming less and less and we’re moving ahead as Saudis,” she says.

Of around one million men who were registered, about half voted. In contrast, more than 80% of the 100,000-plus women who were registered participated in the voting process. AbuSulayman says the lack of registered female voters is because many in the Kingdom have little to no contact with municipalities and don’t think they matter much. “Perhaps they don’t think participation is important, but 20 women elected will change that,” she believes. Altwaijri agrees and adds that having women voters will make even the male candidates better as they will try to appeal to the interest of women voters as well.

The Changing Scenario

Saudi Arabia is part of the Gulf Cooperation Council, also known as the GCC, whose member states also include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. It is the only country in the GCC that enforces Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Islam. Here, public spaces are segregated and women have traditionally needed a man’s permission to start a business, work or travel. Saudi Arabia is the last country in the GCC to give women the right to vote and is the only country where women are not allowed to drive, and are not yet serving as ministers or overseas ambassadors. Earlier this year, the ministry of foreign affairs announced that it did not oppose women serving as ambassadors and representing Saudi Arabia overseas. Women do work as deputy ministers, and most believe it’s just a matter of time before the first female minister will be announced.

In the private sector in Saudi Arabia, such changes have already begun: Women are in executive leadership roles in local companies as well as in multinationals. Most entities in Saudi Arabia are required to give taxi stipends to female employees, and the private sector is now required to open a daycare center if they employ 50 or more women.

Deemah AlYahya has had experience in both the public and private sector in Saudi Arabia. She is the first female Saudi executive to work at Microsoft, the first female people manager overseeing the IT department at the ministry of foreign affairs, and was the first woman hired to work at the Saudi Stock Exchange.

In the private sector in Saudi Arabia such changes have already begun; women are in executive leadership roles in local companies as well as in multinationals.

AlYahya thanks the leadership of the late King Abdullah for not only creating but also enforcing laws that require public entities to hire qualified women. Being a pioneering Saudi woman has not been easy, she says. While such rules have now been relaxed among many government entities, during her early days at the Stock Exchange, AlYahya worked alone in a 4ft by 3ft room and was not allowed to enter the male section. When she conducted meetings, her manager had to be there to serve as a male guardian. But despite these restrictions, AlYahya saw her role as an important opportunity.

Her work at the Saudi Stock Exchange was so impressive that she was recruited by the ministry of foreign affairs. This was the first time the ministry had a female manager. AlYahya recalls that some men who worked under her were opposed to having a female manager and wanted to change departments. She told them to give her three months and if they were still unsatisfied she would personally make sure they would be able to switch into different roles. According to AlYahya, when the time came, these men were so happy working under her that they forgot such a conversation had ever happened. The next generation of Saudi women have many opportunities and don’t face the same struggles she dealt with, she adds.

Young leaders such as Lujain Al Ubaid say men must also be included in discussions on the changing role of women. She believes that positive changes come from a shared responsibility with no one being excluded — whether they be men, women, youth or the elderly.

Last month when I was visiting Riyadh, I attended an event organized by Tasamy, a non-profit organization co-founded by Al Ubaid to support social entrepreneurship in the region. At this event, 700 applicants and 40 male and female finalists from across the Kingdom came together to present their ideas to leaders from the private sector and government. The ideas ranged from an app that allows community members to vote and pick the topic of Friday sermons to creating gender equality and promoting healthy meals in schools.

Role of Social Media

The societal structure in Saudi Arabia has been heavily influenced by social media. Today, Saudis join social networks including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram at much higher rates and spend more time on them compared to users in any other country. This has led to thousands of Saudi women creating successful Instagram businesses, and such female generated businesses have helped create delivery companies run by men.

Social media has not only helped create jobs but also successful campaigns addressing societal issues.

Social media has not only helped create jobs but also successful campaigns addressing societal issues. In our book Arab Women Rising, we highlighted how a widespread Facebook campaign in 2011 led then King Abdullah to sign a decree giving women the right to work in the retail sector, creating thousands of jobs across the country. While this campaign was launched by women, it was heavily supported by men as well. In the same year, King Abdullah announced that women would have the right to vote and run for the first time in the next municipal elections.

Although there are challenges in Saudi society that can hinder a woman’s ability to participate in the workforce and societal discourse, women such as Al Ubaid don’t see themselves as being victimized by society. On the contrary, she sees what Saudi women have been able to achieve — such as outnumbering men as college graduates and continuously making strides in the workforce — as a testament to the strength of Saudi women and the societal support they receive from much of the population.

Many reports say that cash assets held by Saudi women total more than $12 billion, and the government has invested heavily in creating employment opportunities for women. According to Bloomberg, there was a 48% growth in the number of women employees between 2010 and 2014. Saudi Arabia is a vital consumer market with its population larger than all of the GCC countries combined. A high smartphone penetration has led entrepreneurs from across the region to build apps and services targeting Saudi consumers.

Huda Al Lawati of the Abraaj Group, one of the women leaders featured in our book, says with the majority of its population being under 30, the Arab world has become the largest consumer society in the world. “Studies show the biggest consumption phase is between 19 years and 40 years, and the Arab world presents a unique opportunity being at the start of that. A lot of companies will see a windfall over the next decade and the female role in a consumer economy is very important,” she explains.

With strong financial power, social media as a growing tool influencing both citizens and the government, as well as female elected officials, women’s rights in the Kingdom will no doubt continue to evolve.