Gabriella Penuela

In Saudi Arabia, extending the right to vote to women has come with challenges: namely getting them to the polls.

For the first time in its history, women will be able to vote in the December municipal elections in Saudi Arabia. The groundbreaking policy is part of the legacy of the country's late King Abdullah, who died in January. Facing increasing internal and external pressure in 2011, the King decreed that women would be granted the right to vote as well as run for public office during the next election, a full four years later.

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But when registration for the upcoming election opened up for select provinces on August 22, the numbers were dismal: Only 16 women registered to vote during the first week, reported Al Arabiya. Part of the problem, experts say, is a lack of transportation. Saudi women can't drive, and so they face an extra burden making it to registration centers.

Seeing this, the Wall Street Journal's Saudi correspondent Ahmed Al Omran sent out a tweet urging ridesharing apps Uber and Careem (a Middle Eastern company) to offer women free rides to help register and vote.

Shortly after, both companies responded. "Because #yourvoicemakesadifference, we will help you make a difference. For women, trips will be free to the election polls from September 7th-14th," tweeted Careem's Saudi Arabia account. The group said that it "took [Al Omran's] idea to heart," and that it "looks forward to helping Saudi ladies get their votes in."  

“Great idea! We’ve done similar initiatives in Turkey, India and South Africa,” tweeted Uber Riyadh, though it hasn't committed to offering rides to the polls in Saudi Arabia.

"This is a very historical moment for Saudi, and we had been thinking about doing a campaign for women to go out and vote," Abdulla Elyas, co-founder of Careem, told Fusion. The company had its hesitations on how exactly they would pull it off, though, until the leadership saw Al Omran's tweet. Within a few hours after it was posted, they "just said 'boom, we'll do it,'" explained Elyas.

"It was the missing push we needed," he said.

Use of ridesharing apps in the Gulf nation is largely driven by women, who otherwise rely on hired drivers or male family members because of existing restrictions. There is no law technically denying women the right to drive, but authorities have long refused to issue licenses to women. About 80% of the Careem's users in Saudi are female, estimated Elyas.

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"We have some data to show that these women are starting to rely on Uber a lot more for their daily commutes; the proportion of trips that we see in Saudi during the weekday is actually very high relative to other locations," Majed Abukhater, Uber's general manager for Saudi Arabia, told Fast Company last month, citing a similar trend for his company.

Even with part of the transportation hurdles addressed, there are still systemic issues in place that make it harder for women to vote in Saudi, Rothna Begum, a Middle East women’s rights researcher with Human Rights Watch, told Fusion.

For instance, it's harder for a woman to independently get a proof of residency card, since they are typically registered under the name of a "male guardian.' The lack of free movement can also make it harder for women to get an official ID card, which they've been able to get without male permission since 2011.

"With women’s rights in Saudi Arabia it’s been baby steps," said Begum, stressing that Saudi's "male guardianship" system has largely remained unchanged.

“If [the companies offer rides] and their male guardian is not happy with them leaving the house, the male guardian can still stop them from leaving the house,” she said. “There is nothing to allow women to enable themselves to leave the house and register themselves to vote.”

Aside from the legal and bureaucratic barriers to for women who want to vote, actually getting women to engage in the voting process might be another hurdle.

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“Council elections voter turnout is very low anyway, so the other question is whether or not the number of women registering to vote will be low just because it’s low anyway or because there are challenges for them registering as voters. But we won’t really know until registration closes,” said Begum.

Alaa Blakhy, a 26-year-old Saudi designer based in Jeddah said that although she and her friends were happy they have finally been given the right to vote, they're not likely to actually do it.

“I don’t think even guys my age are going to vote. I think it’s a generational thing. We have never talked about it, with my friends who are guys or girls. Maybe because we aren’t social activists, we’re artists and designers,” she said.

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She says she thinks younger Saudis are just not very aware of politics in general.

“I think until now I wasn’t enthusiastic because my friends weren’t, because their friends weren’t,” she said. “The older generation is more enthusiastic because maybe they’ve seen change, maybe they’ve lived in a time when this never could have happened so now that it is happening they are so excited and they want to participate. But for me, I don’t think my voice will matter.”

Whether or not she’ll use Careem’s offer to get to the polls and register, Blakhy says ride sharing apps have "made Saudi so much better in terms of transportation" for women. "It’s made life so much easier, I honestly love it," she said, only lamenting that it's more expensive than hiring a private driver.

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Saudi has been described as "a young country in a very old part of the world," and as a monarchy, the democratic process is still foreign and of limited consequence. The upcoming election won't change everything for women in the country overnight, but it's still opening a door for women that has been closed for several generations now.

“I’d like to run to give [women] more opportunities," Haifa al-Hababi, one of the country's first registered female candidates told local media. By some estimates, about 200 women are expected to run for the municipal council positions. "By running, I’m setting myself as a role model and example for these girls’ fathers that they can do anything they want in the future.”

“We really encourage the women to go and participate, and use this chance to contribute to the country,” said Elyas, of Careem. "We will take care of their rides, and they take care of their votes."

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Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

Nidhi Prakash is a journalist in NYC via Sydney, London, Santiago, Auckland, Mumbai. She reports on international news, healthcare, labor news, and more for Fusion.