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The New York Times
Saudi Women Vote, and Run, in Business Chamber Election
By HASSAN M. FATTAH
Published: November 28, 2005
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Nov. 27 - Saudi businesswomen went to the polls over the weekend to choose a new board of directors for the Jidda Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as, for the first time ever, the list of candidates included women. But despite the trappings of a historic step, women's turnout remained low.
An estimated 2,800 businesses are registered at the chamber in the names of women, but it was not immediately certain how many of them would be eligible to vote. By Sunday evening, only about 50 women had turned up to vote, said Fatin Boundagji, director of Khadija Bint Khuwielid Women's Empowerment unit at the Jidda Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Turnout among men is expected to be stronger.
The election has been billed as a major step forward for women in Saudi Arabia, especially after women were barred from municipal polls held earlier in the year. Despite a budding women's movement in the kingdom, women are still subject to a host of restrictions, most notably against voting in political elections and driving. But many women saw the vote, which included 17 women as candidates, as a victory for women in business, as well.
"This vote is extremely important, not just because women are being allowed to vote and to run, but also because it's a recognition of the role of women in the economy," said Lubna al-Ghalayini, a human resources consultant in Jidda who voted Sunday.
The 17 women are among 71 people vying for 12 seats on the board; 6 more seats will be filled by appointment by the minister of trade and industry. Seven women banded into a political list, while the remainder joined alliances with men's lists or remained independent.
The vote, intended to increase representation of women in business, is seen by many as a prelude to expanded political involvement by women in Saudi Arabia.
"Twenty years ago, I never would have thought I'd be working, but times have changed," said Ms. Boundagji, speaking in an earlier interview. "Now they are recognizing our presence, not just in the workplace but here," she said, referring to the Chamber of Commerce.
Ms. Ghalayini expected the women who entered into political alliances with men to make the most gains.
"Women realize that they have no experience in elections and leadership in this country, so they had to enter alliances," she said. "If the man takes a seat, then they would likely be appointed to lower posts in the chamber."
Voting by men was to begin on Monday and Tuesday. Results are expected to be released by the end of the week.
Ramzi Khouri contributed reporting from Jidda for this article.