LONDON - Women are registering to vote for the first time in Saudi Arabia today in a long overdue move towards equality for the nation.

According to a report on Mail Online, voting registration for the December elections began and on August 30, they will even be allowed to register as candidates. But women in the country still can’t get a passport or open a bank account without a male guardian.

Saudi Gazette newspaper identified Jamal al Saadi and Safinaz Abu al Shamat as the first two women who registered themselves as voters in Madina and Makkah, respectively.

Talking to Saudi Gazette, a local newspaper, Saadi said: “The participation of the Saudi women in the municipal elections as voters and candidates was a dream for us.”

“The move will enable Saudi women to have a say in the process of the decision-making,” she added.

After a series of protests in the Kingdom for women suffrage, late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in 2011 said women will also take part in the next session of the unelected, advisory Shura Council, which vets legislation but has no binding powers.

“Because we refuse to marginalise women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulema (clerics) and others to involve women in the Shura Council as members, starting from the next term,” he said in a speech delivered to the advisory body.

Over a third of 1,263 voting centres in municipal council elections, scheduled for December, have now been reserved for women in the country — which still maintains strict segregation of men and women.

And with the age of voting now changed to 18, younger Saudi women will have an increased say in the makeup of at least municipal councils.

According to Arab News, as many as 70 women, including some businesswomen and others involved in social and community services from Makkah, Madina, Jeddah and Tabuk, intend to run for office. More than 80 have also registered themselves as campaign managers.

Haifa Al-Hababi, who is preparing to participate in the election, said her message in the campaign would be about change. Terming the government’s decision to give women right to vote a tool for change, Al-Hababi said she intends to use it to change the system and life in the Kingdom.

However, it has been seen as a move in the right direction for the nation, which has long been criticised by human rights organisations and other nations for oppressing women.

Adam Coogle, Human Rights Watch, said: “This latest move also sends an important message to all sectors of Saudi society: That women, as well as men, have a stake in the country and are qualified to make decisions that affect the public interest.”

The move was initiated by the now deceased King Abdullah who ordered it in 2011. In 2013, he issued a royal decree stating that the Consultative Council, a royally appointed body that advises the King, be at least 20 per cent women.

Women will be allowed to vote and stand in the elections this December, but the people only choose half of the people on local councils. The other half are chosen by the monarch.

The move to allow women to vote and stand is a welcome surprise from the new king Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, said to be more aligned with hard-line conservatives that his predecessor.

According to local media, 70 women are looking to run as candidates, while another 80 have registered as campaign managers. But despite being a step in the right direction, women still have very few rights because of the guardianship system that exists.

Women are not allowed to obtain a passport, marry, travel or access higher education without approval from a male guardian. This can be a husband or a relative. Women are also forbidden to wear clothes that show off their beauty or make-up, and are required to lit the time they spend with men they are not related to.

Saudi Arabia sent female athletes to the London Olympic Games for the first time in 2012 but hard-line clerics denounced them as ‘prostitutes’. Mr Coogle added: “Saudi authorities should scrap the male guardianship system, under which ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, traveling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian. Authorities also need to ensure Saudi women have full control over all of the major decisions that affect their lives. Only then will Saudi Arabia’s women be able to contribute to society on an equal footing with men.”