Saudi women
Saudi women must get permission from their male guardians to travel outside the country Getty

Saudi women will vote and run in a nationwide election for the first time this week for the first time in the country's history, marking a milestone for greater female political involvement in the ultraconservative monarchy.

Ballots will be cast on Saturday 12 December for municipal elections, in which more than 900 female candidates will run alongside around 6,000 men for roughly 3,100 council seats. Women who have registered to vote ahead of the election make up around 130,000 of Saudi Arabia's 1.49m registered voters, according to the Washington Post.

The participation of women in the elections is the latest move by the Saudi government to improve female inclusivity in public life. "Voting and running for the municipal council elections is a landmark achievement for Saudi women," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch.

Saudi women are taking a more prominent role in society. Women account for around 16% of the Saudi workforce and more female workers are being brought in, although there are restrictions on the types of work they can do. Of the 142 countries included in the World Economic Forum's gender equality index, Saudi Arabia came 130<sup>th – outperforming Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Morocco, Iran and Oman.

Critics of the latest move to improve female inclusivity in politics say the change will have little impact on the status of women in Saudi, which is ruled as an absolute monarchy. Ahead of the vote, we look at restrictions women face – and plans to relax current regulations by Saudi authorities.

Female voters still face restrictions – as do women candidates

Female candidates who will stand in the election face significant barriers. Photographs of candidates are banned and women standing are barred from talking to male candidates. Women making campaign appearances have to speak from behind a panel.

Critics have noted that the relatively closed political system renders the reforms to allow women to vote relatively meaningless. Human Rights Watch have said many Saudi women do not have the ID cards that are required for them to vote. Although all Saudi women can obtain ID cards without asking anyone's permission, bars on women's freedom of movement and opposition from male family members can make it difficult for some women to get hold of one.

Women cannot drive

Although there is no official law banning women from driving in Saudi Arabia, authorities do not issue licences to women and ultra-conservative clerics have issued religious edicts against it – so they run the risk of being arrested and even jailed. Saudi is the only country where such a ban exists.

Grassroots organisations advocating women drivers are gaining traction, however. One woman, Loujain al-Hathloul, who was sentenced to 10 weeks in prison after live-streaming herself driving in protest against the ban, will stand in the Saudi elections on Saturday.

Women are subjected to a guardianship system

Saudi Arabia's male guardianship of women means women must often obtain permission from a guardian – a father, husband, son or male relative – to work, travel, study, marry or access healthcare.

Women are also denied the right to make decisions for their children – they cannot open bank accounts for them or enrol their children in school without written permission from the child's father.

Men hold legal powers of their female relatives in nearly all of their interactions with the state, but moves are being made to give more power to women. In December, it was announced that the kingdom will allow divorced women and widows to manage family affairs without approval from a man or court.

Although the consent of a male guardian is required, more women than men graduate from Saudi universities. Education is compulsory for girls and boys between the ages of six and 15.

Women must have permission to cross borders

Saudi women must get formal approval from their guardians to travel outside the country. They must also have a "yellow slip" – signed by a name – to hand at the airport or border. The regulations apply to women under the age of 45, but Saudi authorities have announced plans to relax the rules.

In 2012, the state enforced a policy that state a male relative would receive a text message whenever a woman left the country, even if she travelled with her guardian or husband.

Women must adhere to strict dress codes

Saudi women must have their head and body covered in must public spaces, in accordance with the country's conservative Islamic laws on modesty. However, interpretations of modesty can vary across the state, depending on the city or area. In some areas, women are expected to wear a face veil, but in others, a loose headscarf or colourful abaya is considered acceptable.