DAMMAM, Saudi Arabia – A minor revolution has spread to this sprawling oil town, with six women running this week for seats on the local chamber of commerce in this deeply conservative country where Islam dictates strict segregation of the sexes.
Although winning won't be easy — of the 12,000 merchants eligible to vote, fewer than 500 are women — the election is a marker of change in Saudi Arabia, where progress toward a more open political system, including greater rights for women, is measured in inches, not miles.
"We're setting an example. Women and men can do things together," said candidate Samia Al-Edrisi, an energetic 55-year-old wearing a jeans jacket under a black abaya, a pair of stiletto-heels poking from under the cloak. "It's a very exciting time to be a Saudi woman."
Al-Edrisi and her colleagues in the Eastern Province, home to the world's richest oil fields, have climbed aboard a very small bandwagon. In an unprecedented November chamber of commerce election in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia's second-largest city, a pair of businesswomen became Saudi Arabia's first female elected officials.
Al-Edrisi and her abaya-clad running mates — one of whom wears a veil covering her face — are competing with 40 men for 12 seats on the Chamber of Commerce and Industry board after long being barred from public life.
Minister of Commerce and Economy Hashem Yamani will appoint six other members. Voting started Saturday, and results are expected Thursday. The chamber board has no political authority and serves only an advisory role in economic decisions.
Women are still banned from running or voting in municipal government elections, Saudi Arabia's first democratic experiment, which started last year. Electoral officials have said women might gain the right to cast ballots in political elections in 2009.
Saudi women lack many rights taken for granted in most of the rest of the world. They are not allowed to drive or to work in the same offices as men. Their ownership of businesses has, until recently, been restricted to ventures like hair salons, boutiques and spas.
Even the Chamber of Commerce building, a shiny glass-and-concrete tower along the Dammam highway, is off-limits to women during working hours.
But that's changing.
"It's going to be hard for them," candidate Suad Al-Zaydi, an interior designer, said of the chamber's male board members. "They've been sitting alone, just men, for all these years. They won't be able to speak their minds anymore. They'll have to understand there are women in the room."
King Abdullah, who took the throne in August after the death of his half brother Fahd, has spoken in favor of a larger role for women. The six women candidates credited Abdullah's personal intervention for their opportunity to run.
Al-Edrisi, a clothing importer, says the kingdom's future depends on women joining public life. But she also believes Saudis won't tolerate rapid change, noting the chaos in Iraq after U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein.
"Iraq is horrifying for all of us," Al-Edrisi said. "We don't want upheaval no matter how much we want democracy. Stability is not overrated, especially in the Middle East."
But pressure for change is everywhere, including from the Bush administration, which Al-Edrisi says harms their cause by identifying it with America.
There's motivation aplenty from within Saudi Arabia, particularly from educated women who might choose to leave if denied meaningful careers, Al-Edrisi said. She cited her two college-educated daughters, who she said will not stay in Saudi Arabia if reform is too slow.
"It's a global economy now. They'll seek opportunities wherever they are," she said, gesturing with her mobile phone.
Saudi attitudes on women appear to be ahead of government policy. Working women were once viewed as headstrong and had trouble finding husbands. Now, the women said, a career helps attract a husband.
Al-Edrisi said she is among the first generation of educated Saudi women professionals, a product of the roaring 1960s and '70s, when the country seemed bent on Western-style advancement — a phase which slowed significantly during the Islamic backlash that started in the 1980s.
Four of the six women candidates worked for state oil giant Saudi Aramco, once an American-owned company where the working language is English. Aramco is one of few Saudi companies that allows women and men to work together.
Now, the candidates hope, reforms are starting again. If elected, they vow to push for workplace integration and female ownership of industrial businesses.
Winning will be difficult. Most businesswomen were stricken from voter rolls on what the candidates describe as a technicality — lack of a commercial license.
"If any of us gets in, we are going to back her up with all our resources," Al-Edrisi said. "We want to make sure this experiment succeeds because we want it to continue."