JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) – Two Saudi businesswomen swept to an unprecedented victory in elections to the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry in the first polls in which women stood as candidates in the conservative Muslim kingdom.
"I”m happy, but I”m still under shock," Lama al-Suleiman, one of the two winners, told AFP, summing up the feelings of many election activists and watchers who had expected one woman at best to be voted into office.
"It”s a big leap for Saudi women, an answer to what people want," said Suleiman, a 39-year-old mother of four.
Suleiman and fellow female winner Nashwa Taher ran on a list of heavyweight business people and industrialists which clinched the 12 board seats up for grabs, according to results released early Wednesday.
With only 100 women among the some 3,880 chamber members who cast ballots, the pair”s victory was effectively handed by men.
"We should give them (women) a chance because they have little representation in society," one male voter said Tuesday, adding he had voted for four women.
The two businesswomen”s win came several months after landmark municipal elections across oil-rich Saudi Arabia from which women were barred but which were credited by many for heightening public interest in the chamber polls in the Red Sea city and turning them into a hotly-contested race.
The fact that women, who previously were entitled only to vote for the Jeddah chamber”s board of directors, stood as candidates "was also an unusual event which contributed to making this election unusual," said Othman Basaqr, a member of a task force which assisted the elections committee.
"This is what everybody seems to be telling me," Suleiman said when asked if she felt she had made history.
Seventeen women were among the 71 candidates in the elections which took place from Saturday through Tuesday. Businesswomen cast their ballots on the first two days and businessmen on the following days, in line with traditions whereby Saudi women do not mix in public with men other than relatives.
Some 21,000 members of the Jeddah chamber, or about half the total membership, were eligible to take part in the polls, but election officials said both the turnout and the number of candidates were a record in the chamber”s 60-year history.
Suleiman admitted she partly owed her victory to having run on a strong list, but she said it was also due to the fact that "a lot of people wanted to encourage women."
In their election programs, both Suleiman and Taher, who sits on the board of a group of family companies, vowed to back a center which assists businesswomen and to help women working from home.
Victory "means we will have more work … There”s a lot for us to learn, but I”m sure we will manage," said Suleiman, who holds a PhD in nutrition from Kings College in London.
Trade and Industry Minister Hashem Yamani is due to appoint an additional six members to the Jeddah chamber board.
The polls were rescheduled from late September by Yamani specifically to enable women to stand after the elections committee linked to his ministry had rejected the candidacies of seven women.
Hisham Khoja, a merchant who said he voted for one female hopeful, noted that the Saudi government was giving women more job opportunities.
But one businesswoman, who asked not to be named, said she did not think US pressure for reform was helping Saudi women.
"In fact, it may be delaying progress … We are moving forward in our own, low-profile way," she said.